Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha - Selections


The Khandhavagga, The Book of the Aggregates, continues along the trail of philosophical exposition opened up by The Book of Causation, but this time breaking into another major area of early Buddhist discourse, the five aggregates. Like its predecessor, the Khandhavagga is named after its opening saṃyutta, which dominates the entire collection. Though the Vagga contains thirteen saṃyuttas, none of the minor ones even approaches the length of the Khandhasaṃyutta, which in the PTS edition takes up 188 of the 278 pages in this volume. But even more, within this Vagga three minor saṃyuttas—SN 23, 24, and 33—focus on the aggregates as their point of interest. These chapters seem to be offshoots from the original Khandhasaṃyutta which at some point were broken off and made into autonomous saṃyuttas. Thus the theme of the five aggregates leaves its stamp throughout this whole collection.

22. Khandhasaṃyutta

The Khandhasaṃyutta contains 159 suttas arranged into three divisions called paññāsakas, “sets of fifty.” Each paññāsaka is made up of five vaggas consisting of approximately ten suttas each, though several vaggas have slightly more than ten. The length and character of the suttas vary widely, ranging from texts several pages long with a unique flavour of their own to extremely terse suttas that merely instantiate a common template.

The topic of this saṃyutta is the five aggregates (pañcakkhan-dha), the primary scheme of categories the Buddha draws upon to analyse sentient existence. Whereas the teaching on dependent origination is intended to disclose the dynamic pattern running through everyday experience that propels the round of birth and death forward from life to life, the teaching on the five aggregates concentrates on experience in its lived immediacy in the continuum from birth to death.

Examination of the five aggregates plays a critical role in the Buddha’s teaching for at least four reasons. First, because the five aggregates are the ultimate referent of the first noble truth, the noble truth of suffering (see 56:13), and since all four truths revolve around suffering, understanding the aggregates is essential for understanding the Four Noble Truths as a whole. Second, because the five aggregates are the objective domain of clinging and as such contribute to the causal origination of future suffering. Third, because the removal of clinging is necessary for the attainment of release, and clinging must be removed from the objects around which its tentacles are wrapped, namely, the five aggregates. And fourth, because the removal of clinging is  achieved by wisdom, and the kind of wisdom needed is precisely clear insight into the real nature of the aggregates.

The five aggregates are at once the constituents of sentient existence and the operative factors of lived experience, for within the thought world of the Nikāyas existence is of concern only to the extent that it is implicated in experience. Thus the five aggregates simultaneously serve the Buddha as a scheme of categories for analysing human identity and for explicating the structure of experience. However, the analysis into the aggregates undertaken in the Nikāyas is not pursued with the aim of reaching an objective, scientific understanding of the human being along the lines pursued by physiology and psychology; thus comparisons of the Buddhist analysis with those advanced by modern scientific disciplines can easily lead to spurious conclusions. For the Buddha, investigation into the nature of personal existence always remains subordinate to the liberative thrust of the Dhamma, and for this reason only those aspects of human existence that contribute to the realization of this purpose receive the spotlight of his attention.

The word khandha (Skt skandha) means, among other things, a heap or mass (rāsi). The five aggregates are so called because they each unite under one label a multiplicity of phenomena that share the same defining characteristic. Thus whatever form there is, “past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near,” is incorporated into the form aggregate, and so for each of the other aggregates (22:48). Two suttas in the Khandhasaṃyutta (22:5657) spell out the constituents of each aggregate, doing so in much simpler terms than the later, more elaborate analyses found in the Visuddhimagga and the commentaries. The breakdown of the aggregates according to the suttas is shown in Table 5. Another sutta (22:79) explains why each aggregate is called by its assigned name, and it is revealing that these explanations are phrased in terms of functions rather than fixed essences. This treatment of the aggregates as dynamic functions rather than substantial entities already pulls the ground away from the urge to grasp upon them as containing a permanent essence that can be considered the ultimate ground of being.

Table 5
The Five Aggregates according to the Suttas
(based on SN 22:56 and 57)

Aggregate Contents Condition
form 4 great elements and form derived from them nutriment
feeling 6 classes of feeling: feeling born of contact through eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind contact
perception 6 classes of perception: perception of forms, sounds, odours, tastes, tactiles, and mental phenomena contact
volitional formations 6 classes of volition: volition regarding forms, sounds, odours, tastes, tactiles, and mental phenomena contact
consciousness 6 classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body-, and mind-consciousness name-and-form


The Khandhasaṃyutta stresses in various ways that the five aggregates are dukkha, suffering, a point clearly articulated by the Buddha already in his first sermon when he states, “In brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering” (56:11). The aggregates are suffering because they tend to affliction and cannot be made to conform with our desires (22:59); because attachment to them leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair (22:1); because their change induces fear, distress, and anxiety (22:7). Even more pointedly, the five aggregates are already suffering simply because they are impermanent (22:15) and thus can never fulfil our hopes for perfect happiness and security. While they give pleasure and joy, which is the gratification (assāda) in them, eventually they must change and pass away, and this instability is the danger (ādīnava) perpetually concealed within them (22:26). Though we habitually assume that we are in control of the aggregates, in truth they are perpetually devouring us, making us their hapless victims (22:79). To identify with the aggregates and seek fulfilment in them is to be like a man who employs as his servant a vicious murderer out to take his life (22:85).

The five aggregates are the objective domain of the defilements that bind living beings to the round of existence, particularly the taints (āsava) and clinging (upādāna). Whatever in the world one might cling to, it is only form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness that one clings to (22:79). For this reason the aggregates that make up our mundane experience are commonly called the five aggregates subject to clinging (pañcupādānakkhandha). Clinging, it will be recalled, is one of the links in the chain of dependent origination, the link that leads into the production of a new existence in the future. In 22:5, the five aggregates are spliced into the second half of the formula for dependent origination, thereby revealing how clinging to the five aggregates in this existence brings forth a new birth and thus the reappearance of the five aggregates in the next existence. Sutta 22:54 states that because of attachment to the five aggregates, consciousness grows and thrives from life to life; but with the destruction of lust, consciousness becomes unsupported and is then peaceful and liberated. This sutta assigns to consciousness a special place among the five aggregates, since consciousness stands supported by the other aggregates and passes away and undergoes rebirth in dependence on them. This dictum accords with the suttas on dependent origination (such as 12:1238, and 64) that treat consciousness as the channel or vehicle of the rebirth process.

Clinging to the five aggregates occurs in two principal modes, which we might call appropriation and identification. In clinging to the aggregates, one either grasps them with desire and lust (chandarāga) and assumes possession of them, or one identifies with them, taking them as the basis for conceit or for views about one’s real self. In a phrase often met with in the Khandha-saṃyutta, we are prone to think of the aggregates, “This is mine, this I am, this is my self” (etaṃ mama, eso ’ham asmi, eso me attā). Here, the notion “This is mine” represents the act of appropriation, a function of craving (taṇhā). The notions “This I am” and “This is my self” represent two types of identification, the former expressive of conceit (māna), the latter of views (diṭṭhi).

To break our appropriation of the aggregates, the Buddha often enjoins us to abandon desire and lust for them (22:137–45). Sometimes he tells us to abandon the aggregates themselves, for they are as completely alien to us as the twigs and foliage in Jeta’s Grove (22:33–34). But to give up clinging is difficult because clinging is reinforced by views, which rationalize our identification with the aggregates and thus equip clinging with a protective shield.

The type of view that lies at the bottom of all affirmation of selfhood is called identity view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi). All views of self are formulated with reference to the five aggregates either collectively or individually (22:47). The suttas often mention twenty types of identity view, obtained by considering one’s self to stand in any of four relations to each of the five aggregates: either as identical with it, as possessing it, as containing it, or as contained within it (22:17478182, etc.). The Buddha describes identity view as the leash that keeps the worldling bound to the round of rebirths, revolving in circles like a dog going around a post (22:99117). He also makes identity view the first of the ten fetters to be eradicated on the path to liberation. The most common way the suttas distinguish between “the uninstructed worldling” (assutavā puthujjana) and “the instructed noble disciple” (sutavā ariyasāvaka) is precisely by way of identity view: the worldling perpetually regards the aggregates as a self or a self’s accessories; the noble disciple never does so, for such a disciple has seen with wisdom the selfless nature of the aggregates (22:1, etc.).

As the formula for dependent origination demonstrates, clinging to the five aggregates is ultimately sustained by ignorance (avijjā). In relation to the aggregates, ignorance weaves a net of three delusions that nurture desire and lust. These delusions, which infiltrate cognition at a variety of levels, are the notions that the five aggregates are permanent, a true source of happiness, and a self or the accessories of a self. The antidote needed to break the spell of this delusion is wisdom (paññā) or knowledge (vijjā), which means knowing and seeing the five aggregates as they really are: as impermanent (anicca), as suffering (dukkha), and as nonself (anattā). These are known in the Buddhist tradition as the three characteristics (tilakkhaṇa), and in the Khandhasaṃyutta they are extensively applied to the five aggregates in a variety of patterns. The suttas devoted to this theme can be highly repetitive, but the repetition is designed to serve a vital purpose: to strip away the delusions of permanence, pleasure, and selfhood that envelop the five aggregates and keep us trapped in the chain of dependent origination.

Perhaps the original nucleus of the Khandhasaṃyutta consisted of the template suttas at 22:9–20, along with the auxiliary template suttas prevalent in The Final Fifty. These suttas were never intended to be read merely to gather information, but to offer concise instructions on the development of insight (vipassanā-bhāvanā). Behind the repetitive utterances, occasionally irksome on first acquaintance, the attentive eye can discern subtle variations attuned to the diversity in the proclivities and intellectual capacities of the people to be guided. Some suttas seem to make the contemplation of one or another of the three characteristics alone sufficient for reaching the goal, though the exegetical texts insist that all must be contemplated to some degree. As the three characteristics are closely intertwined, the most common formula throughout the Nikāyas is the one that discloses their internal relationship. This formula, first enunciated in the Buddha’s second discourse at Bārāṇasī (22:59), uses the characteristic of impermanence to reveal the characteristic of suffering, and both conjointly to reveal the characteristic of nonself. But whatever approach is taken, all the different expositions of the three characteristics eventually converge on the eradication of clinging by showing, with regard to each aggregate, “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” The lesson this maxim teaches is that there is no point in appropriating anything, no point in identifying with anything, because the subject of appropriation and identification, the “self,” is merely a fabrication of conceptual thought woven in the darkness of ignorance.

Different suttas within the Khandhasaṃyutta speak of the three characteristics under various synonyms, and to navigate one’s way through this chapter it is important to recognize which characteristic is being indicated. Thus the statement that the five aggregates are “impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, to vanishing, to fading away, to cessation” (22:21) is obviously using different terms to point out the characteristic of impermanence. Less obviously, the sutta on the fragile (22:32) and the two on arising, vanishing, and alteration (22:3738) are doing the same thing. The suttas that speak of knowing the aggregates as subject to arising and vanishing are also commending contemplation of impermanence (22:126–28). Such suttas as the one on the burden (22:22), on misery (22:31), and on being devoured (22:79), emphasize the contemplation of suffering. Among the many suttas that directly expound nonself, one that deserves special attention is the discourse on the lump of foam (22:95), with its striking similes for the empty, insubstantial nature of the aggregates.

Besides the three characteristics, the Khandhasaṃyutta makes use of other patterns as guidelines for contemplation and understanding. The “gratification triad” is often applied to the aggregates (22:26107130), sometimes expanded into a pentad by the addition of “origin and passing away” (22:108132). Another is the four-truth pattern: understanding each aggregate, its origin, its cessation, and the way to its cessation (22:56114). A sevenfold hybrid is obtained by merging the four-truth pattern with the gratification triad (22:57). In two suttas (22:122123) the Venerable Sāriputta recommends a scheme of eleven ways of attending to the aggregates, obtained by differentiating various aspects of the three characteristics. This method of contemplation, he says, leads all the way from the first steps on the path of meditation to the final stage of arahantship and can even be recommended to the arahant.

According to a stock formula attached to most of the suttas on the three characteristics, the insight into the five aggregates as impermanent, suffering, and nonself induces revulsion (nibbidā), dispassion (virāga), and liberation (vimutti). Revulsion is explained by the commentaries as a profound inward turning away from conditioned existence that comes with the higher stages of insight. Dispassion is the supramundane path, particularly the path of arahantship, which eliminates the last traces of craving. Dispassion culminates in liberation, the release of the mind from clinging and the taints, and liberation is in turn ascertained by the subsequent “knowledge and vision of liberation,” a reviewing knowledge that gives the assurance that the round of rebirths has been stopped and nothing further remains to be done.

The Khandhasaṃyutta shows that the elimination of clinging occurs in two distinct stages. The first is the elimination of the conceptual types of clinging expressed by wrong views, above all by identity view. This stage of release comes with the breakthrough to the Dhamma, the attainment of stream-entry. At this point the disciple sees the selfless nature of the aggregates and thus overcomes all views of self. For this reason the defining mark of the “instructed noble disciple,” the one who has made the breakthrough, is the elimination of every kind of identity view. However, disciples in training (sekha), even those at the penultimate stage of nonreturner, still retain a subtle notion of “I am” that continues to linger over the five aggregates like the scent of soap over newly washed clothes. This is spoken of as “a residual conceit ‘I am,’ a desire ‘I am,’ an underlying tendency ‘I am’” (22:89). However, as the noble disciple continues to contemplate the rise and fall of the aggregates, in time even this residual notion of “I am” disappears. It is only the arahant who has fully understood the five aggregates down to the root and thus eradicated the subtlest tendencies to self-affirmation.

Elsewhere in the Khandhasaṃyutta the distinction between the trainee and the arahant is drawn in other terms, based on the same principle but differently expressed. Sutta 22:56 explains that trainees have directly known the five aggregates by way of the four-truth pattern and are practising for their fading away and cessation; thereby they “have gained a foothold in this Dhamma and Discipline.” Arahants have also directly known the five aggregates by way of the four-truth pattern, but they have extirpated all attachment to the aggregates and are liberated by nonclinging; thus they are called consummate ones for whom “there is no round for describing them” (see too 22:57, which expands the sphere of direct knowledge into a sevenfold pattern). While direct knowledge (abhiññā) of the aggregates is ascribed to both trainees and arahants, only arahants are said to have full understanding (pariññā) of the aggregates, for full understanding implies the destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion (22:106; see too 22:23). At 22:79 the trainee is described as one who is abandoning the five aggregates and does not cling to them. The arahant, in contrast, is one who neither abandons nor clings, but “abides having abandoned.” And at 22:109–10, the stream-enterer is defined as one who understands the five aggregates by way of their origin, passing away, gratification, danger, and escape, while the arahant is one who, having understood the aggregates thus, is liberated by nonclinging. Thus these passages indicate the essential difference between the trainee and the arahant to consist in the extent to which they have developed liberating knowledge. The trainee has arrived at this knowledge and thereby eliminated the conceptually explicit types of ignorance crystallized in wrong views, but he has not yet fully utilized it to eradicate the emotively tinged types of ignorance manifest as clinging. The arahant has mastered this knowledge and fully developed it, so that in his mind all the defilements along with the subtlest shades of ignorance have been abolished. The trainee might be compared to a person walking along a mountain path who catches a distant glimpse of a splendid city but must still walk across several more mountains to reach his destination. The arahant is like one who has arrived at the city and now dwells comfortably within its bounds.

Beneath its repetitiveness and copious use of template formulas, the Khandhasaṃyutta is a rich compilation of texts, and no brief introduction can do justice to all its suggestive themes. Special mention, however, might be made of the Theravagga, the fourth vagga, on the elder monks. Here we find Ānanda’s first-hand account of his breakthrough to the Dhamma while listening to a discourse on the aggregates (22:83); Sāriputta’s refutation of the annihilationist interpretation of Nibbāna (22:85); Anurādha’s puzzlement about the Tathāgata’s status after death (22:86); the story of Vakkali, who attained final Nibbāna while dying at his own hand (22:87); the Khemaka Sutta, on the distinction between the trainee and the arahant (22:89); and the story of the refractory monk Channa whose change of heart proved abundantly fruitful (22:90).

23. Rādhasaṃyutta

This saṃyutta is virtually an appendix to the Khandhasaṃyutta as it revolves entirely around the five aggregates, but it has a distinct internal unity in that all its suttas are addressed to a single bhikkhu named Rādha. According to the commentary, the Buddha liked to speak to this monk on deep and subtle matters, and thus a large number of texts have come down through him. The saṃyutta consists of four vaggas with a total of forty-six suttas, all relating to the aggregates. Suttas 23:4–10 have exact counterparts in the Khandhasaṃyutta. The contents of the second and third vagga largely overlap, while the third and fourth vaggas are identical except for the circumstances of their delivery.

24. Diṭṭhisaṃyutta

This saṃyutta, too, is an extension of the Khandhasaṃyutta, an outgrowth of its last vagga, called Diṭṭhivagga and dealing with views. However, while the Diṭṭhivagga focuses only on a few basic views, here an attempt is made to cover a much wider range. The aim of the chapter is to show, from various angles, how all these views originate from clinging to the five aggregates.

The views fall into several distinct classes: first comes a strange philosophy, not encountered elsewhere in the Nikāyas, but apparently a species of eternalism; then come several familiar views—the view “this is mine,” etc., eternalism, and annihilationism (24:2–4). This is followed by four philosophical theories advocated by the Buddha’s contemporaries, all of which he condemned as morally pernicious (24:5–8); and next come the ten speculative views that the Buddha consistently rejected as invalid (24:9–18). Beginning with the second vagga, eighteen additional views are introduced, all concerning the nature of the self after death (24:19–36). It is unclear why these views are not included in the first vagga, as they would have fit in there without any difficulty.

The saṃyutta contains four vaggas, which centre upon the same collection of views, except that the first vagga lacks the eighteen views of self. Each mode of treatment in the four vaggas is called a “trip” (gamana), though the word appears only from the second vagga on. The suttas of the first trip define the mark of the stream-enterer as the overcoming of perplexity (kaṅkhā) regarding six things—namely, the arising of views from clinging to the five aggregates and the four types of sense objects (the four counted as one), which are impermanent, suffering, and subject to change—and the overcoming of perplexity about the Four Noble Truths. The second shows that since the five aggregates are impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, views arise by clinging and adhering to suffering. The third includes the refrain that the views arise by clinging to the five aggregates, which are suffering because they are impermanent. The fourth applies the catechism, “Is form permanent or impermanent?” to the five aggregates to expose their nature as nonself, showing how liberation arises through realizing the selflessness of the aggregates.

25. Okkantisaṃyutta

26. Uppādasaṃyutta

27. Kilesasaṃyutta

These three saṃyuttas can be treated together, as they are each built upon a common foundation, differing only in the way they use this material to articulate their distinctive themes. The foundation on which they are built is a tenfold scheme for classifying the factors of experience already encountered in the Rāhulasaṃyutta (18): the six internal sense bases; the six external sense bases; the six classes each of consciousness, contact, feeling, perception, volition, and craving; the six elements; and the five aggregates. Thus each saṃyutta contains ten suttas, one devoted to each group of items.

In relation to these ten groups, the Okkantisaṃyutta makes a distinction between two types of individuals who enter upon “the fixed course of rightness” (sammattaniyāma), i.e., the transcendental Noble Eightfold Path, the path of stream-entry. The difference between them is determined by their dominant faculty. The one who emphasizes faith resolves (adhimuccati) on the impermanence of the factors in the ten groups; this type of person is called a faith-follower (saddhānusārī). The one who emphasizes wisdom gains understanding of the impermanence of the factors in the ten groups; this type of person is called a Dhamma-follower (dhammānusārī). Of both it is said that they cannot pass away without having realized the fruit of stream-entry. Regardless of this distinction in means of entering the path, when they know and see the truth of the teaching for themselves, they become stream-enterers. This saṃyutta does not distinguish between their character as stream-enterers, but elsewhere (MN I 478) it is indicated that the stream-enterer who gives prominence to faith is called “liberated by faith” (saddhāvimutta) while one who gives prominence to wisdom is called “attained by view” (diṭṭhippatta). A third class, without counterpart among path-attainers, consists of one who gains the formless meditations; this type is known as a “body-witness” (kāyasakkhī).

28. Sāriputtasaṃyutta

The Venerable Sāriputta was the Buddha’s foremost disciple with respect to wisdom, but here he is depicted as an adept in meditation as well. The first nine suttas of the saṃyutta are composed from a stereotyped formula in which Sāriputta explains how he enters and emerges from the nine meditative attainments without giving rise to ego-affirming thoughts. Each time his reply is applauded by Ānanda. In the tenth sutta Sāriputta replies to some provocative questions from a female wanderer and his answers win her approval.

29. Nāgasaṃyutta

30. Supaṇṇasaṃyutta

31. Gandhabbasaṃyutta

32. Valāhakasaṃyutta

These four saṃyuttas can be discussed together, as they all deal with certain classes of sentient beings that, from a modern perspective, would be considered mythological. In each the Buddha enumerates the different species into which the class can be divided and the courses of kamma that lead to rebirth into that particular mode of existence. By counting separately each type of gift given by the aspirant for rebirth into those destinies, and connecting them with the subdivisions among the beings, a large number of very short suttas are generated.

The nāgas are dragons, serpent-like beings, powerful and mysterious, believed to reside in the Himalayas, beneath the earth, and in the depths of the ocean. They are often thought to have access to hidden treasures and the ability to grant favours to their human benefactors. They also appear on earth and can assume human form, though only temporarily. The Vinaya Piṭaka even relates the story of a nāga who obtained ordination as a bhikkhu but was forced to relinquish his monastic status; as a result, every candidate for ordination must affirm, before the Saṅgha, that he is a human being (and not a nāga in disguise; see Vin I 86–87). The supaṇṇas, identical with the garuḍas, are their arch-enemies: fierce birds of prey that pounce on unwary nāgas, carry them away, and devour them. The gandhabbas are more benign: though sometimes depicted as celestial musicians, here they are obviously plant deities. They are identified as the spirits of fragrant plants because gandha means fragrance. The identity of the valāhakas or cloud-dwelling devas is evident from the explanation given in the texts.

These beings do not fit neatly into the scheme of cosmology outlined in the Introduction to Part I. The nāgas and gandhabbas are said to be ruled over by two of the Four Great Kings presiding over the heaven of that name, though as depicted here they can hardly be described as dwelling in heavenly worlds themselves. Rather, all these beings seem to belong to an intermediate zone between the human world and the lowest heaven, twilight creatures described with striking uniformity in the mythologies of many different cultures.

33. Vacchagottasaṃyutta

Vacchagotta was a wanderer who often approached the Buddha to ask questions, almost always of a philosophical hue. Finally convinced, he became a bhikkhu and attained arahantship (see MN Nos. 71–73).

This saṃyutta shows him during his phase as an inquirer. The saṃyutta has fifty-five chapters, undivided into vaggas, created by a process of permutation. In the first five suttas, in response to Vaccha’s questions, the Buddha explains why the ten speculative views arise in the world, namely, from not knowing the five aggregates. Each sutta deals with a separate aggregate, treated by way of the four-truth pattern; hence five suttas. The remaining fifty suttas are created by taking ten synonyms for not knowing—e.g., not seeing, etc.—and relating them individually to the five aggregates in exactly the same way.

34. Jhānasaṃyutta

This saṃyutta is concerned with the types of skills required for success in attaining concentration (samādhi). Despite the title, it does not deal explicitly with the jhānas as states of meditation but with the process of meditation. A proper Jhānasaṃyutta, concerned with the jhānas, is found in Part V. Perhaps at one point this chapter was called the Jhāyanasaṃyutta, which seems more appropriate. The saṃyutta explores, in pairwise combinations, ten meditative skills. Each pair is related to four types of meditators: one who possesses one skill but not the other, one who has neither, and one who has both. In each case the last in the tetrad is extolled as the best. In this way fifty-five suttas are generated covering all possible permutations.

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© Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2000)

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