The Five Aggregates Of Clinging By Bhikkhu Bodhi

The two steps aforesaid treats our experience analytically. We have to dissect the being, our own individuality. The Buddha reveals that what we are, our being or personality, is a composite of five factors which are called the five aggregates of clinging. They are called the five aggregates of clinging because they form the basis for clinging. Whatever we cling to can be found amongst the five aggregates. These five function together as the instrument for our experience of the world. We cling to them as instruments of our experience in this life, and when they break up at death, due to that same clinging - the desire for enjoyment and for existence - a new set of aggregates, a new life arises to continue our experience in another existence. Thus we build up one set of aggregates after another, life after life, and in that way we accumulate Dukkha, the suffering, in the round of samsara.

The Buddha says that the five agregates have to be fully understood. This is the first Noble Truth, the truth of Dukkha. The five aggregates are our burden, but at the same time they provide us with the indispensable soil of wisdom. To bring suffering to an end we have to turn our attention around and see into the nature of the aggregates.

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The five aggregates are:

1.   Material form.
2.   Feelings.
3.   Perceptions.
4.   Mental formations.
5.   Consciousness.

These five aggregates exhaust our psychophysical existence. Any event, any occurrence, any element in the mind-body process can be put into one of these five aggregates. There is nothing in this whole experiential process that lies outside them.

All these four mental aggregates always exist together; they all depend upon one another. Whenever there is any experience of an object, at that moment there is present, simultaneously, a feeling, a perception, a cluster of mental formations and consciousness, the light of awareness.

Whatever we identify ourselves with, whatever we take to be 'I', or 'my self' can be found within these five agggregates. Therefore if we care to understand ourselves, what we have to understand is the five aggregates. To fully understand the five aggregates means to see them as they really are, and this means to see them in terms of the three characteristics of existence, that is, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness or suffering, and selflessness or non-self.


This includes all the material factors of existence, every type of material phenomena. The most important of these is the body, the physical organism through which one experiences the world. The Buddha analyses the aggregate of material form into two basic substances:

1. Four primary elements.
2. Secondary forms of matter.


For Buddhists these do not mean literally the natural earth, water, fire and air. Rather, they symbolise four behavioural properties of matter common to all material phenomena, the properties that every material body exhibits.

(a)  Earth element
This is the property by which a material body has some degree of hardness or softness, roughness or smoothness.

(b)  Water element
This represents the property of cohesion. Because of the water element, material particles bind together and adhere to one another.

(c)  Heat element
This is the principle of heat by which all material phenomena possess some degree of heat. Even when a particular substance feels cold to us, that is only becasue it contains less heat than our body. But every material body possesses some degree of heat.

(d)  Air Element
This is the principle of distention, by reason of which all material particles are in a state of vibration. By reason of the air element, material bodies exhibit a motion.

Now all material phenomena possess these four elements to some degree. What distinguishes them is the proportion in which the primary elements are combined. We discriminate the types of matter on the basis of the dominant element. Thus we find solid bodies, liquids, gases and forms of energy depending on the proportions or predominance of the four primary elements. But all four elements are present to some degree in every unit of matter.


Besides the primary elements, there are a number of secondary types of matter, material forms derived from the primaries. They are :

(a)  Five sensory receptors.
These are the sensitive tissues of the sense faculties, eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. The sensitive matter by reason of which eye can receive sight, nose can receive smell, ear can receive sound, tongue can receive taste and body can receive touch sensation.

(b)  The first four sense data.
Colour, sound, smells and taste are also secondary types of matter. The touch sensation however, is provided by the primary elements themselves.

(c)  Life faculty 
The faculty which vitalizes the body and keeps it alive.

(d)  Mental base
Organs and nerve tissues which function as support for consciousness in the thought process.

The aggregate of form comprises the entire material side of existence. The mental side is distributed amongst the other 4 aggregates.

The mind for Buddhists is not a simple unit, but a complex cooperative activity involving four Factors: feeling, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness


Feeling is the mental factor that has the function of experiencing the 'flavour' of the object, the effective quality of the object. There are three basic types of feelings - pleasant, painful and neutral feeling. Feeling can further be subdivided by way of the sense faculty through which it originates: feeling which arises by contact with the eye, ear, nose, tongue , body and mind, which amounts to eighteen types of feeling (three kinds each through six sense faculties).


This is the mental act of grasping the distinguishing qualities of the object. Perception takes note of the object's features, it identifies and notes.

Perception is divided into six categories by way of the sense objects that it takes note of:

(a)  Perception of form
(b)  Perception of sound
(c)  Perception of smell
(d)  Perception of taste
(e)  Perception of touch
(f)   Perception of ideas


This is a comprehensive group which contains a number of volitional factors. In Abidhamma 50 types of mental formations are mentioned. Of these, the most important is volition or will. This is the mental factor which arouses us to act by way of body or speech. Mental formations also include all different desires and emotions, including the wholesome and unwholesome roots. These are the basic psychological roots of unwholesome actions: greed hatred and delusion, and the basic roots of wholesome actions: generosity, loving kindness and wisdom.


Consciousness is the key factor of the mind. It is the basic awareness of the object, the light of awareness which makes all experience possible.

Consciousness is divided into six types by way of its bases:

(a)  eye consciousnesscognizes visual objects.
(b)  ear consciousnesscognizes sound
(c)  nose consciousnesscognizes smell
(d)  tongue consciousnesscognizes taste
(e)  body consciousnesscognizes tangible sensations
(f)  mind consciousnesscognizes objects of outer senses such as sights, sounds... etc as well as mental objects such as ideas, concepts,images, abstract notions etc.

Consciousness seems similar to perception, but these two perform different functions. Consciousness is the general awareness of objects, while perception is the specific factor which grasps the object's distinctive qualities

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