Khandha literally means: heap, stack. A synonym for the term khandha in the Dhamma context is: pañcupādānakkhandhā → pañca + upādāna + khandha: pañca = five; upādāna = attachment; khandha = heap, stack.
Usually this concept is translated (in my opinion careless) as ‘the five aggregates of clinging’. A better translation would be: ‘the five components or processes of which every human being is composed’.
The khandha’s are the – at any given moment changing – five ‘heaps’, ‘collections’, ‘groupings’ or ‘stacks’ of phenomena (the flow of processes) that together determine who we are and what we experience. These five components include one material process (rūpa) and four mental processes (nāma), namely: perception (saññā; sensations or feelings (vedanā); the reaction(s) to them (saṅkhāra’s) and consciousness (viññāṇa).
- rūpa khandha: the material form, the body. (And by extension the entire physical, material aspect of reality).
- saññā khandha: perception or impression. Included memory, since perceptions and impressions depend on past experiences.
- vedanā khandha: sensations on, in and through the body. Sensations arise from the contact of (at least one of) the six sensory organs with an external object. These feelings are pleasant, respectively unpleasant or neutral.
- saṅkhāra khandha: the reactions to these sensations. These are the habitual patterns; the conditioning; the mental formations. That ‘what animates us’, i.c. the conscious or unconscious reactions that determine our (mental and afterwards verbal and physical) behavior. Every suffering (dukkha) that arises has a reaction as the cause. When all the reactions cease to exist, there is no more suffering. (Dvayatanupassana Sutta, Sutta Nipata, 3.12). This is a very important observation: it means that dukkha can only be stopped by not reacting to our sensations, i.e. by observing them with the utmost alertness and accepting them equanimously. In the chain of dependent origination ( paticca samuppada) the focus lies therefore on the seventh chain (vedanā).
- viññāṇa khandha: the consciousness of; the knowing of all phenomena that occur to us, sensory and emotionally.
Each of these five khandhas is impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) and empty, insubstantial (anattā).
On top of this, not only the khandhas are subject to the three characteristics (tilakkhaṇa), but also the causes (hetus) and conditions (paccayas) from which these khanda’s arise, are subject to tilakkhaṇa. Everything we attach ourselves to (upādāna) – everything that manifests itself in the world or in the mind – belongs to one of these five khandhas.
From the above it appears that the ‘I’ is an aberrant delusion. An illusion (maya). It possesses not a single solid core. No substance. No soul. This “I” consists only of a series of impermanent, unsatisfactory, selfless processes.
The practitioner who acquires this insight enters the stream. Transforms from a ‘worldling’ (puthujjana) to a ‘noble person’ (ariya-puggala).
The Buddha in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 22.59:
“Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards consciousness. Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion his mind is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’
Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.”
This last sentence is the standard description used in the suttas to indicate that arahantship has been achieved.
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276