sunset Oct 21 2015

The Five Aggregates / The Buddhist Skandhas

The Five Skandhas, or aggregates, are a fundamental concept in Buddhism, particularly within Mahayana tradition, that describe the components or processes that constitute sentient beings. They are often used to convey the non-self (Anatta) nature of beings, illustrating that what we consider “self” is merely a collection of temporary, changing processes without an inherent, permanent essence. Here, I’ll relate the teachings of the Five Skandhas through traditional Mahayana parables and teachings, weaving together the essence of these concepts with the art of storytelling for a deeper understanding.

The Parable of the Chariot

In ancient texts, the Buddha teaches about the non-self nature of beings by comparing a person to a chariot. Just as a chariot is made up of parts—wheels, axle, frame, etc.—and is not found to exist independently of those parts, so too is a person made up of the Five Skandhas:

  1. Form (Rūpa): The physical aspect, akin to the wheels and frame of the chariot, representing our body and physical sensations.
  2. Sensation (Vedanā): The feelings or sensations arising from interaction with the physical world, like the comfort or discomfort one feels riding the chariot.
  3. Perception (Saṃjñā): The process of recognizing and labeling experiences, just as one identifies the parts of the chariot and their functions.
  4. Mental Formations (Saṃskāra): The volitional or intentional actions, comparable to the decision to assemble the chariot and direct it.
  5. Consciousness (Vijñāna): The awareness of sensory and mental experiences, similar to the consciousness that oversees the journey of the chariot, integrating all experiences.

The parable concludes that just as the “chariot” exists only as a combination of its parts and not as an inherently independent entity, so too does the “self” exist only as a combination of the Five Skandhas, without an inherent essence.

The Parable of the Burning House

This parable, found in the Lotus Sutra, indirectly touches upon the Skandhas by illustrating the delusions that entrap beings in the cycle of suffering. A wealthy man’s house is on fire, but his children, absorbed in their games, do not heed his warnings. To save them, he promises them magnificent carts (representing different paths to enlightenment) if they leave the house, which they do, escaping the danger.

The burning house represents the world aflame with the suffering arising from the Skandhas. The children’s attachment to their games symbolizes beings’ attachment to sensory pleasures and experiences (Form, Sensation, Perception) and their ignorance of the danger represents unawareness of the suffering caused by clinging to these aggregates. The father’s skillful means (upāya) in leading the children out of the house illustrate the Buddha’s teachings, guiding beings away from the attachments to the Skandhas and towards liberation.

The Parable of the Raft

In this teaching, the Buddha compares his teachings (Dharma) to a raft used to cross a river. Once the river is crossed, the raft is no longer needed and should be left behind rather than carried along.

This parable teaches about the use and eventual release of the Skandhas. Just as the raft is a tool for crossing the river, the Skandhas are tools for experiencing the world and practicing the Dharma. However, attachment to the raft (the Skandhas) after it has served its purpose is unnecessary and burdensome. This teaches practitioners to utilize the Skandhas in their practice without becoming attached to them, ultimately letting them go to realize the nature of emptiness and achieve enlightenment.

Through these parables, Mahayana Buddhism teaches profound lessons on the nature of self, the process of awakening, and the path to liberation, all while illustrating the complex teachings of the Five Skandhas in accessible and engaging ways.


A-serene-and-contemplative-scene-illustrating-the-Buddhist-Parable-of-the-Chariot.The Parable of the Burning House
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