Sowing Mindfulness on Khandha Soil

By Ven. Sopako Bodhi Bhikkhu
Cynthia Thatcher

Matter (Rupa-khandha)
Feeling (Vedana-khandha)
Memory or perception (Sanna-khandha)
Mental formations and mental factors (Sankhara-khandha)
Consciousness (Vinnana-khandha)

The five khandhas are the components of a person or being. They are: matter, feeling, perception, consciousness and mental formations. In truth, a person is nothing more than this collection of aggregates. These five phenomena are impersonal, unsatisfactory and impermanent.

The khandhas are called 'groups of clinging' because everyone grasps at them as belonging to self. Yet the Buddha taught that, "Whatever there is of corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness, whether past, present or future, one's own or external, gross or subtle, lofty or low, far or near, this one should understand according to reality and true wisdom: 'This does not belong to me, this I am not, this is not my Ego.'" (S. XXII, 49).

Suffering results when we cling to the khandhas, mistaking them for aspects of the ego. If we could cease taking the body, feeling, memory, consciousness and mental formations for self, or the property of self, we could live with ease. A person who gives up attachment to the khandhas realizes nibbana, complete freedom from suffering. Nibbana is called, "supramundane happiness."

The five khandhas are with us from the moment of birth until we die. Together they constitute the first of the vipassana bhumis. 'Vipassana' means insight. 'Bhumi' means a field or land. Since we already have these five 'fields' - matter, feeling, perception, consciousness and mental formations - we ought to plant something in them. We can plant the seeds of mindfulness or the seeds of concentration, depending on what kind of crop we want.

1. Corporeality-group (Rupa-Khandha)

Materiality is the first khandha. It is called 'rupa.' A human body contains twenty-eight kinds of matter. The rupa-khandha includes the four elements earth, water, fire, and air (pathavi, apo, tejo, vayo). Each element has four characteristics: color, smell, taste, and nutriment (vanna, gandha, rasa, oja). Every part of the body possesses the four elements, along with their four characteristics. Even a single hair contains the air, earth, fire and water elements. A single hair also has the attributes of color, smell, taste, and nutriment.

It is the nature of rupa, corporeality, to change or disappear according to conditions. For example, when the temperature is too hot or too cold, certain types of matter cannot survive.

2. Feeling-group (Vedana-Khandha)

The vedana-khandha includes painful, pleasant, and neutral feelings. Feeling can be triggered by changing conditions in the body, or it can arise from the mind itself.

3. Perception-group (Sanna-Khandha)

Because of perception and memory, we are able to retain the names of things. We can also remember whether a sense-impression is good or bad. Whenever the eye sees, the nose smells, the tongue tastes, the ear hears, the mind thinks or the body touches something, memory is present to know what was seen, smelled, tasted, heard, thought or touched.

4. Mental Formations-group (Sankhara-Khandha)

Here, the word 'sankhara' refers to the fifty mental factors (cetasikas) other than feeling and perception. Some mental formations, such as volition, contact and attention, accompany every moment of consciousness. Others appear only occasionally. Some are wholesome, some, unwholesome. The wholesome mental-formations include: mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom.

Unless we practice mindfulness, in daily life we have unwholesome mental formations most of the time. After perceiving an object and judging it as desirable or not, attraction or aversion takes over, causing you to describe the form further. (Attraction and aversion are but milder forms of greed and hatred.) In judging the object as pleasant, you feel excited and you cling to it. If the object is unpleasant, you feel aversion toward it. Thereafter, every time you think about that object, your liking or disliking grows stronger.

The mental descriptions, and the resulting attachment and aversion, are a kind of pollution in the mind that prevents you from seeing reality as it is. That pollution accumulates all the time unless you practice mindfulness. The khandha of mental formations is different for all beings because the amount of mental pollution varies with each person.

On the wholesome side, whenever you pay attention to the present moment you're cultivating mindfulness, which leads to wisdom. The mind that stays in the now can't wander or daydream. Descriptions are not accumulated; preferences can't intensify. Liking and disliking decrease until at last reality shines through clearly.

5. Consciousness-Group (Vinnana-Khandha)

Thinking is the activity of consciousness. Consciousness receives and knows the objects of experience, both mental and physical. There are many types of consciousness. Some have desire, anger or delusion as their 'root.' Some types have a wholesome root. These may result in beneficial action, speech or thought. Some are neither wholesome nor unwholesome. Ethically neutral types of consciousness are called 'rootless.' Consciousness can serve as an object of mindfulness when we observe the act of thinking itself, instead of the content of the thought.

Consciousness either augments the impurities in the mind or else actively eliminates them. Until the highest level of enlightenment, the mind never remains at status quo. A person can eliminate mental pollutants by observing the mind and its objects (those things of which the mind is aware) with mindfulness.

Khandhas Past and Present

We can talk about the khandhas in two ways: 1) as coming from the past; that is, the khandhas that result from previous karma (vipaka-khandha); and 2) as existing in the present moment.

The Khandhas from the Past: Objects of Concentration
'Vipaka' means result, the result of intentional actions previously performed. Vipaka-khandhas come from the good or bad actions (karma) performed in the past, whether during this life or in previous lifetimes. Everyone has the same five khandhas that result from past karma: material form, feeling, memory, consciousness and mental formations.

The first moment of consciousness is called 'patisandhi' in Pali. Karma causes this moment of consciousness - the first moment of your life - to arise. Because of karma you're born here on this earth with this particular body, instead of being born somewhere else with a different form. The body's four elements, air, earth, fire, and water, comprise the material khandha that results from past karma.

Buddhism teaches that all beings are reborn over and over again in the wheel of birth and death. There is no end to this cycle of rebirth until a person eliminates the greed, hatred and delusion in his or her mind. At times during this faring-on you have a pleasant rebirth, at other times an unpleasant one. The quality of your life depends on the kinds of actions you perform.

The Buddha taught that all beings have performed good and bad actions in the past. That means that everyone has a store of both good and bad karma waiting to give a result when conditions allow. If someone enjoys the result of good karma, he or she will be healthy and good-looking. The material-khandha will possess all thirty-two parts and twenty-eight rupas mentioned in the Pali texts. It's because of wholesome karma that someone is born with a complete physical form, including functioning eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and tactile sensitivity, and a complete mental apparatus.

If someone experiences the result of bad kamma, he or she will be reborn without all thirty-two body parts as, for example, someone born handicapped. Although the person 'spends' the unwholesome karma during his lifetime, the result of that karma does not last forever. When the person is reborn again, a different karma will give a result. That new karma may very well be a wholesome one, giving rise to a healthy body and pleasant life-circumstances.

Likewise, someone who is now spending the result of good karma, as evidenced by good health, may be reborn into an unpleasant state in his next lifetime. It depends, in part, on whether the person performs wholesome or unwholesome actions now, in the present lifetime. It also depends on when a particular karma has a chance to manifest. The wheel never stops turning. The Pali Canon tells of a young woman named Sumana who was variously reborn as a hen, a heavenly being, a pig, and a princess as part of a long series of rebirths. She eventually attained enlightenment and was no longer reborn in samsara.

When good karma gives its result, a person will also enjoy pleasant feeling and memories, have good mental formations and a wholesome consciousness or mind. The difference in body, mind and circumstances among human beings is a result of having performed different bodily, verbal and mental actions in the past. So the way to gain happiness is to perform wholesome actions now, because those actions will result in pleasant experiences, either in this lifetime or the next.

Everyone clings to the material khandha that results from previous karma or action. We believe, out of ignorance, that the body belongs to us, thinking: "My leg, my head, my hand, my eye, my tongue."

We were born with this body or corporeal khandha. It is already formed. Some people use the physical body itself as a subject of meditation. However, the corporeal structure of the body can only be used as an object for developing concentration, whereas the material-khandha that arises in the present moment can be used to develop mindfulness.

According to the Buddhist tradition, a new monk learns to develop concentration by focusing on the following body-parts: head-hair (desa), body-hair (lobha), fingernails (laha), teeth (kanto) and skin (dajo). These are the visible parts of the body. The monk concentrates on their characteristics, such as the color of the hair, its smell, taste and nutriment, in order to see how these visible body-parts change. For instance, he might think about the fact that the hair changes color from black to gray. He concentrates on the characteristics of matter in order to see impermanence and nonselfness.

But the hair never knows that it's hair. The teeth and skin are not aware of themselves. We cling to these things, believing that they belong to us. But in fact they simply exist according to the laws that govern physical phenomena. Eventually they disappear, separating into the elements earth, air, fire, and water. In the conventional sense, we know that our own hair and skin differ from someone else's. But in the ultimate sense, hair, teeth, skin and so forth do not belong to any individual but only to cause and effect and natural, physical laws.

Meditating on hair, fingernails, teeth and skin develops concentration. When contemplating the parts of the body (the rupa-khandha that results from past karma), we can't be said to be practicing mindfulness, because the various body parts are not meditation objects for destroying greed, hatred and delusion. In order to eliminate those mental impurities, a deep understanding of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness or nonselfness is needed. And that depends on the direct insight gained from mindfulness practice.

The Khandhas of the Present: Objects of Mindfulness
If you want to develop mindfulness and eliminate mental pollutants, you have to observe the khandhas as they arise in the present moment. Unless you're trying to develop concentration, it won't be useful to contemplate the khandhas that are already formed.

Although you can't use the thirty-two parts of the body for developing mindfulness, you can use the material-khandha that arises in the present moment. That khandha is a correct object of mindfulness.

The material- or rupa-khandha in the present moment refers to the movement and posture of the body. Sitting is rupa, standing is rupa, walking is rupa, lying down is rupa. Whichever posture your body is adopting now is rupa-khandha in the present moment. You are never without bodily posture.

The agent that knows that the body is sitting is nama, which means mind. The mind is the faculty that knows an object. It is nama, the mind, that knows when you are standing, walking or lying down. A rupa (material form) is always known by nama.

'The Body in the Body'

The four postures and the motion of the body are called 'kaya vinnatti rupa,' meaning, 'bodily expression.' 'Bodily expression' or movement is that aspect of the body that originates from the mind, in the present time. Whereas the physical form itself results from karma, i.e., from actions performed in the relatively distant past, the physical movement that we experience in the present moment comes from concurrent volitions in the mind.

The Satipatthana Sutta tells us to observe 'the body in the body,' that is, the body as it occurs in the present moment of activity. The 'body in the body' doesn't refer to the elements within the head, hand or leg. We don't observe to find out what is physically inside the material frame - the bones, muscles, and arteries. The corporeal elements in the head and limbs are not appropriate objects of mindfulness.

'The body in the body' means 'bodily expression' or movement. It includes posture. Posture is an outward expression of a simultaneous mental volition. In order to develop mindfulness we should observe the body's motion and posture.

The sitting posture itself is 'in the body.' So are the standing and lying down postures. And physical movement of any kind is 'in the body.' These postures and actions belong to the rupa-khandha of the present moment. By mindfully observing the posture or motion of the body, it is possible to eliminate the wrong view that rupa is self or the property of self.

On the other hand, if we observe the corporeal elements in the limbs, we'll cling to the physical form and believe, 'that's my leg, or my arm' wrongly viewing the material phenomenon as belonging to an ego.

So it's necessary to understand how the objects of mindfulness differ from traditional concentration objects. Again, the appropriate body objects for mindfulness are: 1) bodily movement; and, 2) posture: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.

The five khandhas can be reclassified into two categories: 1) those that are comprised of material phenomena (rupa), and 2) those comprised of mental phenomena (nama). The materiality-group belongs to the first category, of course. The other four groups - feeling, perception, consciousness and mental formations - are nama, mental phenomena. In the practice of mindfulness we observe nama, mental phenomena, and rupa, material phenomena, in the present moment.

The second khandha is feeling (vedana-khandha). You can observe feeling as it arises in the present moment. Viewed in that way, feeling becomes an object with which to develop mindfulness. Observing vedana-khandha in the present moment means: When you sit, how do you feel? When you stand, how do you feel? When you walk, how do you feel? When you're moving the hand, or bending the body, how do you feel? Is the feeling pleasant, unpleasant or neutral?

The consciousness-group (vinnana-khandha) is present whenever you experience a form. If you're practicing mindfulness of the sitting posture, for example, consciousness 'receives' the object. Consciousness knows the form of the posture.

Perception, or memory (sanna-khandha), remembers that you are sitting, not standing. And the contact between an object and the mind, the act of attending to the object, and the volition that turns the mind toward the object, all belong to the khandha of mental formations (sankhara-khandha).

"Whatever, O brother, there exists of feeling, of perception and of mental formations, these things are associated, not dissociated, and it is impossible to separate one from the other and show their difference. For whatever one feels, one perceives; and whatever one perceives, of this one is conscious." (M. 43).

All five khandhas appear together in the present moment. How? When you're aware of the body walking step-by-step, it is the mind - consciousness and mental factors - that knows the act of walking (vinnana-khandha). Furthermore, feeling will arise as you walk; that's vedana-khandha. The walking-meditation exercise has six different steps; when you remember which step you're executing, perception is manifest (sanna-khandha). When wholesome mental formations are present, you have mindfulness to know the object (sankhara-khandha). The material-khandha is present, too, because the action of walking is a material phenomenon. Those are the khandhas of walking in the present moment.

If unwholesome mental formations are present, liking or disliking will arise when you're walking. During the practice of mindfulness we try to interrupt the stream of consciousness before liking and disliking occur. That isn't done by forcing the mind, but simply by returning it to the present again and again. Liking and disliking only arise when the mind drifts away from the present moment.

But if mindfulness is strong it will be able to observe materiality, feeling, perception or consciousness before the mind develops liking or disliking for the object. In that case, unwholesome mental formations will not have a chance to generate preferences.

The Five Senses

The five sense-impressions - color, sound, smell, taste, and touch - also belong to the first khandha, the group of matter. These sensations can be used to develop mindfulness, since we can know them as they arise in the present. The meditator can be aware of the act of seeing as it arises and passes away.

Color is rupa, matter. The agent that sees the color is consciousness. The feeling that arises from seeing a beautiful or ugly image is a function of the feeling-khandha. Remembering the name of the image is the perception-khandha. The contact that happens when the object 'touches' the mind is the mental-formations-khandha. All five khandhas are involved when seeing occurs. It's the same with hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

When the eye sees color, the khandhas of matter, consciousness, feeling, perception and mental-factors appear simultaneously. But when you practice mindfulness, don't try to observe all five khandhas at once. Just observe one khandha at a time and let it go. Don't think about the way you feel. Don't describe the form you're observing. There's no need to evaluate the objects you perceive. Be aware of the sense-impression, motion, feeling or thought as it appears and then drop it. After letting it go, observe the next object. Don't continue to think about the first one. Focus and forget it. Observe one object, let it go, then observe the next.

When the ear hears a sound, for example, only be aware that sound is rupa, material form. Being aware of sound is not the same as thinking, "sound is rupa." You don't need to repeat a word or phrase. Just know the experience. Don't try to find out where the sound came from, or why. Just observe the phenomenon of hearing as it arises and passes away.

The five khandhas can become objects for developing mindfulness if you continue to keep your attention on the next object that's arising in the present. If you practice in this way you'll gain the wisdom to see reality as it is.


Observing the khandhas in the present moment is the way to diminish mental pollution until it's cleared from the mind. That's why we have to understand the khandhas. If we continue observing vipaka-khandha, the body that results from past kamma, we only develop concentration.

Only the mental and material phenomena (namas and rupas) that arise in the present moment are valid objects for developing mindfulness. In insight meditation we distinguish motion and posture from corporeal form. The primary objects that we observe are: bodily movement, sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. The additional objects of contemplation are: seeing, hearing smelling, tasting, touching, feeling, and thinking.

Your physical form is the result of actions performed long ago. But the movement and deportment of the body, which are also material phenomena (rupa), result from volitions in the mind. These volitions occur simultaneously with the movement. That is one difference between the two kinds of matter, i.e., the corporeal form and its activity. When practicing mindfulness we observe, from moment-to-moment, the activity of the body that is occurring right now.

When you can distinguish motion from the corporeal elements and observe the former in your daily activities, you are practicing mindfulness. Simply observe each moment, each movement, then let it go. Apply the same procedure to sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes, feelings and thoughts. In that way the five khandhas will become a vast field for mindfulness, leading to the fruit of nibbana. We call that 'enlightenment won.'

Printer Printable Version