Definition of the Buddhist Term: "Skandha"

hThe Sanskrit word skandha means "heap" or "aggregate" in its literal translation. (In the Pali language, the comparable term is khandha.)  In Buddhist theory, a human being is a combination of five aggregates of existence, called the Five Skandhas. These are:

  1. Form (sometimes known as "the aggregate of matter."
  2. Sensation and feeling
  3. Perception
  4. Mental formations
  5. Consciousness

Various schools of Buddhism have slightly different interpretations of the skandhas, but the following list summarizes the basics. 

The First Skandha

 Generally, the first skandha is our physical form, the actual matter that makes up of literal bodies, which in the Buddhist system includes the four elements of solidity, fluidity, heat and motion. In essence, this is the aggregate that makes up what we think of as the physical body. 

The Second Skandha

The second is made up of our emotional and physical feelings, emotion feelings that arise out of contact our sense organs have with the world. Those feelings/sensations are of three kinds: they can be pleasant and enjoyable, they can be unpleasant and abhorrent, or they can be neutral. 

The Third Skandha

The third skandha, perception, takes in most of what we call thinking--conceptualization, cognition, reasoning. It includes the mental recognition or categorization that happens immediately after a sense organ comes in contact with an object. Perception can be thought of as "that which identifies." The object perceived may be a physical object or a mental one, such as an idea.

The Fourth Skandha

The fourth skandha, mental formations, includes habits, prejudices and predispositions. Our volition, or willfulness, also is part of the fourth skandha, as are attention, faith, conscientiousness, pride, desire, vindictiveness, and many other mental states, both virtuous and not virtuous. The laws of cause and effect, known as karma, are the domain of the fourth skandha.

The Fifth Skandha

The fifth skandha, consciousness, is awareness of or sensitivity to an object, but without conceptualization or judgment. However, it is a mistake to believe that the fifth skandha somehow exists independently or is somehow superior to the other skandhas. It is a "heap" or "aggregate" just as the others are, and is simply a fact, not a goal.

What is the Meaning?

When all the aggregates come together, the sensation of a self or "I" is created. What this means, exactly, varies somewhat depending on the different schools of Buddhism. In the Theravedan tradition, for example, it is thought that clinging to one or more skandhas is what leads to suffering. For example, living a life devoted to the willfulness of the fourth skandha would be seen as a recipe for suffering, as would a life devoted only to detached awareness. An end to suffering becomes a matter of relinquishing attachment to the skandhas. In the Mahayan tradition, practitioners are led to the understanding that all the skandhas are inherently empty and devoid of concrete reality, thereby liberating an individual from bondage to them. 

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Definition of the Buddhist Term: "Skandha"." Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, January 29). Definition of the Buddhist Term: "Skandha". Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Definition of the Buddhist Term: "Skandha"." Learn Religions. (accessed May 28, 2023).