The Five Aggregates

"I took a walk. Suddenly I stood still, filled with the realization that I had no body or mind. All I could see was one great illuminating Whole—omnipresent, perfect, lucid and serene."
Han Shan
The Buddha taught that there is no permanent unchanging self, that such a self is an illusion. Rather, our sense of self is composed of the Five Aggregates. The Five Aggregates are form (matter, our bodies), feelings, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. In botany, an aggregate fruit is one, like a raspberry, made up of a cluster of little fruitlets. Similarly, each of the five aggregates is made up of a combination of mental forces or energies.

So in this Buddhist paradigm, we exist in our bodies. We interact with the world of matter. We experience the world via our sensations, emotions and perceptions. We experience the world of ideas with our mind.

The mental formation aggregate is connected with karma. It is from this aggregate that we exercise will and act on it. The aggregate of consciousness contains all the other aggregates. Consciousness depends on form, feeling, perception, and mental formation. It does not exist separately from them.

Out of these aggregates we arrive at our sense of self. When we combine our bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, we arrive at a construct, a mental formation, that we consider to be "I" or "me." When we grasp at the Five Aggregates, we have, inevitably, suffering. The self that we cling to is formed of a constantly changing blend of elements and interactions. When we become attached to it, we become frustrated. We are trying to grasp something that is ungraspable.

The good news is that when we release our grasping we can be free to experience freedom and joy. Let us meditate on these things that we may release ourselves from the prison of attachment.


Imagine that you are a river flowing to the sea. As this river, you have five major tributaries. The first of these is the river of form.

Visualize this river of form as a stream made up of your body and all of its senses. Your senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell are activated in your body. These sensations arise in the action of your nervous system. Messages are passed from cell to cell. These messages are processed and either responded to or ignored. Your cells grow and die and are replaced with other cells in an ongoing dance. Your heart beats, and your lungs breathe. You eat and digest. You take in matter from the outside world and form it into you. All the while, parts of you return to the outside in the breath you exhale, the old skin and hair you shed, and the waste you eliminate. This body, that seems so solid, is always changing, always growing, always dying.

The next tributary that flows into the river of  being is the river of feelings. Here are sensations and emotions. Our feelings arise in response to images, sense impressions, and ideas. They may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We may desire them or be repelled by them. When we are mindful of our sensations, we can see where they came from, calm them, and release ourselves from attachment to them. As this river of feelings flows together with the river of the body, they blend their waters. We can no longer see them as separate. They flow together and they join the river of  perception.

The river of perception is the flow of how we see the world. Where one person looks at the sky and sees a beautiful sunset, another may just see air pollution. We perceive our world out of the sensory inputs channeled through our expectations and projections. We name and categorize things in the world, and we think that we know them. We do the same with the things that are in our minds and bodies. In our misperceptions we live in illusion. In our prejudices we live in ignorance. When we attain correct perception--gain understanding, we can be released from the bonds of fear and attachment. Imagine the river or perception flowing into the rivers of form and feelings. They swirl and bubble together, flowing on to join the river of mental formations.

Having sensed and perceived, our mind acts. We create acts of will or volition. We generate karma. We attend to this or that, determine to do this or that, focus our will, generate desire or repugnance. We form the idea of our self. We form the idea of separation from the rest of the cosmos. A formation is something made of a combination of other things. A loaf of bread, for instance, is made of flour, water, yeast, the effort of the baker, heat, etc. Our mental formations form out of our body states and experiences in the world of sensation and perception.  While some thoughts may be persistent, they are not permanent. Consciousness changes in response to changing conditions. Thought forms flow into our river and join the aggregates that form our being.

The Aggregate of Consciousness is the watershed for all the other aggregates. It is also the rain that falls to the ground, and the clouds that carry the rain, and the ocean that generates the clouds. And yet, the ocean, and the clouds and the rain depend on the river as well. Consciousness does not arise of itself. It depends on form, feeling, perception and mental formations. Consciousness is awareness that arises in relation to an object via the action of the senses. It is acted upon by perception, and is the seedbed of mental formations.

This river of our self with its five tributaries, is fed, in truth, by thousands of streams. It flows in channels dug by our ancestry, our experiences, and actions. Its banks rise and fall. It can be channeled or dammed up. It can be full of life or dead from pollution. It is part of the land, and it is part of the air. It flows on complex and changeable.

Imagine the river of aggregates ever changing. It is not just a river, not just a body of water. It is all that flows into it, and all that flows out of it. It is the land and the sky. It is everything and nothing. You too, are that.


Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, HarperCollins, 1994.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Broadway Books, 1999.
Walpola Rahula, What The Buddha Taught, Grove Press, 1959.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett