The Function and Meaning of Five Aggregates (pañca skandha)

by Zurmang Gharwang Rinpoche

1. Form Aggregate (Rūpa skandha):
The form aggregate refers to the physical component of the aggregates, which consists of sense objects and our sense powers. We can explain this concept of the form aggregate from a functional perspective. The mind does not wander about in empty space, but has forms or images to look at. Form provides a basis for the mind to be able to contemplate objects. Then according to your interests you may develop desire, hatred, or neutral feelings towards these objects.

In Buddhist teachings we are encouraged to practice non-attachment to forms by cultivating an understanding of their impermanence and emptiness. This helps to dismantle grasping to form which is impermanent and also dependent upon our mind. This also helps us to overcome our belief in our own delusions. For example, it is like a dream. Although we are solely responsible for the creation of the dream, there is no true substance within the dream to prove that the dream is true.

2. Aggregate of Feeling (Vedanā skandha):
When there is contact, the meeting of the mind with its object (and also a sense power), feeling is produced. Feelings are divided into three groups: (1) the things we like and admire which give rise to desire, (2) the things we see as ugly or distasteful and which give rise to aversion, and (3) the things we consider neutral, such as when someone drinks water without giving rise to the feeling that it is either good or bad. The reason that knowledge about feelings is important in Buddhism is so that we do not let our feelings decide our future and thus remain trapped in samsara. Many times in our lives, our feelings bring a great amount of anxiety, worry, and pain. Feeling of pain or pleasure can distract us from right motivation and the path that we all wish to follow.

3. Aggregate of Discernment (Samjñā skandha):
Feelings lead us to discernment, and as we know, every individual tends to have different perspectives about so many things in life according to how they conceptually crystallise what they have seen or heard. In Buddhism, there is nothing wrong with seeing or listening in and of themselves. It is only when our minds try to interpret things according to our likes and dislikes that misconceptions and misunderstandings arise. For instance, a movie itself is not inherently good or bad. This type of judgement is all a matter of perspective.

4. Aggregate of Compositional Factors (Samskāra Skandha):
The aggregate of compositional factors includes all our dispositions including most mental functions such as intention and positive and negative mental states. It also includes karma, and the aggregate of compositional factors is the main ingredient in creating a connecting karma for this life and the next life. It is also called karma in making.

5. The Aggregate of Consciousness (Vijñāna Skandha):
There are six or eight consciousnesses based on the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and the mind (for the enumeration of eight consciousnesses, defiled consciousness and basis of all consciousness are included). These consciousnesses assist us in seeing things, smelling nice perfumes, tasting delicious food, feeling comfort or discomfort, and also in mental construction. They all play a very important role in our lives and are responsible for our happiness and pain.

One of the main reasons why we need to understand the five aggregates is that once we are able to logically dismantle grasping to the aggregates by understanding impermanence and emptiness, then the six (or eight) consciousnesses, being without these false objects, fail to function to bring about the suffering state of samsara. This brings an end to the illusory work of dualism which created everything, and then eventually our world will dissolve before our eyes!

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