The 5 Aggregates, looking for the core

Last month we discussed Anatta as it applies to existence, follow the link to read more(3 Characteristics of Existence, Anatta). Let’s get a little deeper into the philosophy of Anatta. As we discussed before, the Buddha never said people don’t exist he simply suggested that, what we take to be ourselves is a compounded thing like any other. Stated most simply, we can break it down to smaller pieces. This illusion of simplicity and wholeness of self is tricky and even once it’s outlined it’s a hard pill to swallow.

So if self is not real, what are the components we can break it down to? Enter the 5 Aggregates, you may see the word ‘skandhas’ it means heaps. For me calling them heaps brings to mind images of sorting one big pile of crap into other smaller piles of crap, for parents you know, cleaning your kids room… So what are our piles that this self thing can be broken down to. Form, Feeling, Perception, Mental Formations, and, Consciousness. By those piles combined we are living breathing thinking feeling emotional train wrecks, ha myself included. Let’s outline these 5 in turn.


Form, is the physical portion of your being. Your physical body which houses the mind, the sense faculties, and, the tissues upon which they rely. Everything corporeal about us lives here. The eyes with rods and cones that react to light, the optic nerve, the brain itself to process. All of that is what helps us see. Without any single link in that chain seeing is difficult if it’s even possible. The same can be said of all the senses. Our body houses all the sense organs and the bits make them work. Even this component is made of components. (That is an underlying lesson in this teaching, even the pieces have pieces). With that one fifth fraction of the 5 we are done talking about the physical portion of being.


That in itself is another hard pill to swallow, some find it hard to believe that the body is only 20% of the being. According to the Buddha’s teaching that’s it. Now for Feelings, most people immediately thing of: happiness, sadness, anger etc. To be clear those are emotions not feelings. I know you’re thinking “What the hell are feelings then?” In Buddhism Feelings are an initial “taste” of objects or phenomenon. The feelings are of 3 kinds Pleasant\good, neutral\indifferent, and, unpleasant\painful. Each time something comes into contact with our sensitive meats one of these 3 classifications is evoked. We usually don’t even acknowledge that we do, this but we do, every single sensation is met labeled and tucked in the memory banks for later use. Obviously, this is a big piece of the puzzle to make the whole Samsara rat race. Now to breakdown Perception, we gon’ learn today!


Perception is another building block in the Lego tower of what makes us… well us. Perception is where we begin to experience things and label them. It’s a way to kind of put a handle on things so we can make further use of them. Perception says: This is a chair, He’s tall, She has brown hair and so on. In Perception we begin to quantify the world around us. We then apply our findings to the game of gathering pleasant things and distancing ourselves from the unpleasant things. Perception arises when we contact things either physically, through our sense gates (sight, sound, touch, and, so on), or we contact things in a non-physical manner ie. thoughts, visions, or, symbols. Now we move on to Mental Formations

Until this point we (meaning the self) are reactionary in nature. Mental Formations is where we start doing things about it. This is where our karma comes from, this is where our intentions come from, this place is a big leap we begin to manipulate things to our advantage here. For the most part our manipulations are benign, even to an extent benevolent. But like all powers this is where it can go sideways too. For example we decided in our Perception that a big ass house was a ‘good’ thing. As we now big houses generally require big money, and we have to go about getting it, so far this is pretty ambivalent just making connections, then we decide how we are going to go about making that money. We will apply our principles to our money making, but largely it’s up to us. There is no real ‘right or wrong’ just consequences, an honest job or selling drugs, either can get you to the desired outcome but the choice was made. Dualistic thinking was not something the Buddha was into as it is a subjective game, however, we can judge a choice by it’s fruit. Just like in farming, we plant cantaloupe seeds with a solid concept of the result. In similar fashion robbing people or selling drugs has undesirable side effects, and none of us can find shelter from our choices, one day they catch up to us. If you believe in rebirth then you know karma can catch that ass down the road too. Now that I’ve successfully killed the joy in the room, let’s talk Consciousness.


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Consciousness is the most interesting of the Five in my opinion. It plays a few key roles here. Most basically, it is the generalized ‘light’ of awareness. It also plays a huge role in digesting the sense inputs. Obviously hearing something relies on more than just sound hitting ear drums, there has to be something to handle the input and make sense of it. This is true of all the senses, the consciousness has to process them all. Consciousness also has the unique ability to process it’s own class of stuffs. Thoughts, ideas, notions, symbols, visions all these things are in the territory of consciousness. This is one of the more slippery concepts. Understanding this part is more a matter of experience than a standardized explanation. I know, I know, buck well passed, sadly the path is up to each individual to walk and it isn’t always easy to convey in words. So what lessons can we draw from this things?

To wrap this up and draw some conclusions. Hopefully we are now all on the same page in our knowledge of the pieces that compose this ‘self’ idea that we suffer under. So what else can we draw from the 5 Aggregates? We now have a wealth of ground To meditate upon. Now that we have an intellectual basis upon which we can build now comes the work of realizing these things. If we practice enough we can start to find the seems among not only ourselves but our experiences as well. That is some powerful biz. From this perch you can really begin to see the lay of the land in actuality!

By J.Martin


One thought on “The 5 Aggregates, looking for the core

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  1. I enjoyed how you explained the 5 Aggregates. It helps to be reminded of the difference between feelings and emotions. Neutral feelings tend to be ignored, but they’re important.

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