Concept of Man in Buddhism – Part 1

(This is the second part of the blog – An introduction to the Buddhist concept of man and development)

What is the aim of philosophy?

In the western tradition, the position of Socrates holds a pivotal break-point to the extent that the Greek philosophers are classified as pre-Socratic and post-Socratic. This important juncture in Greek philosophy was brought about by Socrates stating that the question central to philosophy was to examine the question – How should life be lived?[1]This was in stark contrast to earlier Greek philosophers whose focus was on matters abstract to the human condition and hence Socrates became known as the one who brought Greek philosophy to earth.

In the Indian traditions, the quest for the ultimate truth leading to the cessation of the cycle of rebirth (Samsāra) had engrossed the philosophies around the same times when Socrates (469 -399 BC) roamed the streets of Athens questioning its inhabitants on issues such as knowledge and morality. The Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya states that there existed 62 beliefs/views (ditthi) during the time of the Buddha. The rise of Buddhism and the attraction of its message can be attributed to many facts among which the lucidity of its message played an important part. Central to the Buddhist teaching is the Buddhist concept of man which analyzes the human being and lays the foundation for a balanced lay life, based on both material and spiritual progress, as well as for the cessation of the cycle of rebirth through the achievement of the summum bonum of Buddhism – Nirvana.      

The Buddhist teachings contain two notions of man which are an elaboration of each other[2]:

  • Man as a compound of ‘name-form’ (nāma-rūpa)
  • Man as a compound of the five aggregates (pancakkhandha)

The structural component of man constituting his psycho-physical personality is divided into the following:

  • aggregate of matter (rūpa)
  • aggregate of feeling (vedanā)
  • aggregate of perception (saññā)
  • aggregate of determination (sankhāra)
  • aggregate of consciousness (viññāna)

The aggregate of feeling (vedanā), aggregate of perception (saññā),aggregate of determination (sankhāra),aggregate of consciousness (viññāna)together constitute the nāma while the aggregate of matter constitute the rūpa.


These five components taken together are called the panca upādānakkhanda or the five ‘holding aggregates.’ 



Aggregate of matter (Rūpa)

According to the Buddha, man is not a simple conglomeration of material elements but a conglomeration of material elements that have the power of grasping. This conglomeration can be read in two senses:

  •  a composition of the 4 physical elements- apō (fluidity), thejo (heat), vayo (motion) and patavi (solidity);
  • a composition of the body and sense organs which give rise to the holding aggregate of matter (upādana-rūpa)

Aggregate of feelings or sensations (Vedanā)

Vedanā is of two types, physical and mental. Both physical and mental feelings are pleasant (sukha), unpleasant (dukkha) or neutral (adukkhamasukha).  These feelings or sensations are experienced through the contact of the 6 sense organs with the outside world. e.g. contact of the eye with visible forms, contact of the ear with sounds, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible objects and mind with thoughts/ideas.

 When a pleasant feeling arises, man tends to cling or grasp (upādāna) on to it resulting in a sensuous greed (rāgānusāya). When unpleasant feelings occur there is a revulsion (patigānusāya). It is to be noted here that these ethico-psychological roots within man serve to determine his behaviour.

Aggregate of perception (Saññā)

Perception arises as a result of the 6 senses- eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. So man’s perceptions are of six kinds in relation to his six internal faculties and six external stimuli (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and ideas). While different scholars have debated whether ‘Perception’ is the correct translation of the Pali word ‘Sanna’, that debate is not ventured into here.

Aggregate of determination (Sankhāra)

In translations of Buddhist texts, the word Sankhāra has been defined by a number of English terms- karmic formations, volition, disposition, determination. While leaving out the argument  as to which term is more applicable, it is important to note here that Sankhāra essentially refers to intentional or volitional activities of the mind that give rise to karma and thereby causes rebirth. Examples of such intentional/volitional activities that give rise to karma are determination, confidence, love, hate, greed etc. The Buddhist texts list 52 such volitional activities[3]. The most fundamental volitional activity is Sākkayaditthi or the idea of self. It arises due to another volitional act ignorance (avijjā) and can be destroyed by another volitional act wisdom (panna).

Consciousness (Viññāna)

Man’s consciousness cannot exist independently of the other four aggregates. 

“ Consciousness may exist having matter as its means (rūpapāyam), matter as its object (rūparāmmanam), matter as its support (rūpapatittham), and seeking delight, it may grow, increase and develop, or consciousness may exist having sensations as its means….or perceptions as its means…or dispositions as its means, dispositions as its object; dispositions as its support, and seeking delight , it may grow, increase and develop.” (Mallikarachchi, 2003:40)

A distinction to note here is that Consciousness does not include recognition but a general awareness of the external object/stimulus. For example if the object is blue in colour, there is recognition of the presence of an object due to consciousness but the act of recognition of the blue colour object takes place due to Saññā or Perception as mentioned above. But like Feelings, Perception and Determination, Consciousness is also of six kinds in relation to the six internal faculties and corresponding six external objects.

In the Buddhist world-view, the world is constituted of both natural objects and their forms (rūpa) as well as individuals and their mental processes (nāma). Man is a conglomeration of these two aggregates, i.e Nāma-Rūpa, with Vedanā, Saññā, Sankhāra, Viññāna being the mental components of this complex. Together with rūpa are formed the five component elements of Man (pancakkhānda). The attainment of supreme liberation or enlightenment in Buddhism, identified as Nirvāna, is possible only by annihilation of these mental components, practicable only through a proper understanding (sammā ditthi) of the things and processes in the physical and mental world as a causally connected whole possessing 3 distinct characteristics:

§    Impermanence (aniccā)

§    Suffering (dukkha)

§    Soullessness (anattā)


Since these 3 characteristics (tri-lakkhana) constitute the fundamental characteristics of the Buddha’s world-view, an outline is provided here.

Impermanence (Aniccā)

A characteristic inherent in all things, both living and non-living is Impermanence. Change is an inherent feature of all things. According to the Samyutta Nikaya, whatever is born is impermanent, because they are characterized by birth (uppada), transformation (Thistassa annathatta) and destruction (vāyo). The pace or rate at which change occurs may change but from the minute particles to universes change is an inherent phenomenon. Thus all things are impermanent. This principle operates not only in the physical world but also in the mental. In the Samyutta Nikaya, it is expounded that the five aggregates themselves are impermanent. Accordingly, both the physical objects (rūpa) and the four aggregates of mind (nāma) are subject to change and are impermanent. In the Buddhist world-view, the whole world is views as a transient phenomenon and hence is dynamic. This is distinct from other absolutist concepts such as in the Upanishads. Thus the Buddha attempts to understand Man by placing him in an ever-changing context. Man who does not understand this change anticipates permanency and therefore is subject to pain and suffering.   

Suffering (Dukkha)

Suffering is a natural corollary to the doctrine of Impermanence. It is the second fundamental characteristic of existence. Dukkha is also the first of the four Noble Truths.

In the second Noble Truth, Craving (tanhā) is considered as the fundamental cause of suffering. Craving is threefold – craving for sensual pleasure (kama tanha), craving for being (bhava tanhā), craving for annihilation (vibhava tanhā). Mallikarachchi (2003) quotes Jadunath Sinha to further elucidate that:

“…..It is thirst or craving, causing the renewal of existence, accompanied by sensual delight, seeking satisfaction now here, now there- that is to say, the craving for the gratification of passions, or the craving for a future life, or the craving for success in this present life. This is the noble truth containing the origin of suffering.” (Mallikarachchi, 2003:21)

Man as a sensual creature seeks pleasure and due to the transitory or impermanent nature of sensual pleasure Man is subject to suffering. While there is no denying the existence of pleasure and enjoyment as part of Feeling (Vedanā) they ultimately turn into pain due to impermanence. The First Noble truth thus says that birth is suffering; decay is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, grief and despair are suffering; association with the dislike and disassociation from loved ones is suffering; not getting what one wants is suffering; in brief the five aggregates is suffering. Thus both the aggregates that constitute Man and the world he lives in is suffering.


Quite distinct from other pre-Buddhist and post-Buddhist worldviews, Soul-lessness is the third fundamental characteristic of the Buddhist world-view. This is a logical conclusion arising from the other two fundamental characteristics- Impermanence and Suffering. According to the Buddha, Man is subject to suffering due to his non-realization of the impermanence of all things. If all things are impermanent, it would be a contradiction to talk of a permanent soul.

The three fundamental characteristics are to be understood together and not in isolation[4].

(to be continued……)







[1] Previously Greek philosophy was engrossed in the examination of more abstract questions such as the movement of stars(astronomy), the composition of matter etc. 


[2]Mallikarachchi, D. (2003) Buddha and Marx on Man and Humanity. Published by the Author.


[3] Venerable Walpola Rahula. (1996) What the Buddha taught. Dehiwela: Buddhist Cultural Centre.



[4] The Samyutta Nikāya states  -“What is impermanent, that is suffering. What is suffering that is not self.” (Yad aniccam tam dukkham, yam dukkham tad anatta) (Mallikarachchi, 2003:24)     



One thought on “Concept of Man in Buddhism – Part 1

  1. Pingback: I Am The Sky These Are Only Clouds | Middle Pane

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