How the Buddha looked at the “What is a Person?” Question

A recurring theme in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s writing is his stress on how important it is to understand what kinds of questions the Buddha answered, and refused to answer, in his teachings. Many people think his new way of using the Pali word “khandhas” was the answer to the question, “Who am I” or “What is a person?” But in fact, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains, the Buddha was actually answering a whole different set of questions.

What kind of question do the “khandhas” or “aggregates” answer?

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

“THE BUDDHA’S AWAKENING gave him, among other things, a new perspective on the uses and limitations of words. He had discovered a reality— the Deathless—that no words could describe.

At the same time, he discovered that the path to Awakening could be described, although it involved a new way of seeing and conceptualizing the problem of suffering and stress. Because ordinary concepts were often poor tools for teaching the path, he had to invent new concepts and to stretch pre-existing words to encompass those concepts so that others could taste Awakening themselves.

One of the new concepts most central to his teaching was that of the khandhas, usually translated into English as “aggregates.” Prior to the Buddha, the Pali word khandha had very ordinary meanings: A khandha could be a pile, a bundle, a heap, a mass. It could also be the trunk of a tree. In his first sermon, though, the Buddha gave it a new, psychological meaning, introducing the term “clinging-khandhas” to summarize his analysis of the truth of stress and suffering.

Throughout the remainder of his teaching career, he referred to these psychological khandhas time and again. Their importance in his teachings has thus been obvious to every generation of Buddhists ever since. Less obvious, though, has been the issue of how they are important: How should a meditator make use of the concept of the psychological khandhas? What questions are they meant to answer?

The most common response to these questions is best exemplified by two recent scholarly books devoted to the subject. Both treat the khandhas as the Buddha’s answer to the question, “What is a person?” To quote from the jacket of the first:

If Buddhism denies a permanent self, how does it perceive identity?… What we conventionally call a ‘person’ can be understood in terms of five aggregates, the sum of which must not be taken for a permanent entity, since beings are nothing but an amalgam of ever- changing phenomena…. [W]ithout a thorough understanding of the five aggregates, we cannot grasp the liberation process at work within the individual, who is, after all, simply an amalgam of the five aggregates.”

From the introduction of the other:

“The third key teaching is given by the Buddha in contexts when he is asked about individual identity: when people want to know ‘what am I?’, ‘what is my real self?’. The Buddha says that individuality should be understood in terms of a combination of phenomena which appear to form the physical and mental continuum of an individual life. In such contexts, the human being is analysed into five constituents—the pañcakkhandh› [five aggregates].”

This understanding of the khandhas isn’t confined to scholars. Almost any modern Buddhist meditation teacher would explain the khandhas in a similar way. And it isn’t a modern innovation. It was first proposed at the beginning of the common era in the commentaries to the early Buddhist canons—both the Therav›din and the Sarvastivadin, which formed the basis for Mahayana scholasticism.

However, once the commentaries used the khandhas to define what a person is, they spawned many of the controversies that have plagued Buddhist thinking ever since: “If a person is just khandhas, then what gets reborn?” “If a person is just khandhas, and the khandhas are annihilated on reaching total nibbana, then isn’t total nibbana the annihilation of the person?” “If a person is khandhas, and khandhas are interrelated with other khandhas, how can one person enter nibbana without dragging everyone else along?”

A large part of the history of Buddhist thought has been the story of ingenious but unsuccessful attempts to settle these questions. It’s instructive to note, though, that the Pali canon never quotes the Buddha as trying to answer them.

In fact, it never quotes him as trying to define what a person is at all. Instead, it quotes him as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, “What am I?” is best ignored. This suggests that he formulated the concept of the khandhas to answer other, different questions. If, as meditators, we want to make the best use of this concept, we should look at what those original questions were, and determine how they apply to our practice.

The canon depicts the Buddha as saying that he taught only two topics: suffering and the end of suffering (§2). A survey of the Pali discourses shows him using the concept of the khandhas to answer the primary questions related to those topics: What is suffering? How is it caused? What can be done to bring those causes to an end?”

(This excerpt is from the Introduction to a great essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu called “A Burden Off the Mind: A Study Guide on the Five Aggregates.”)

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza


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