16 September 2022

Notes on Translating the Skandhas

I dislike it when translators adopt idiosyncratic translations, since they tend to dislocate us from the source text and the general body of translations. That said, I find some standard translations of Buddhist technical terms incomprehensible, even after almost thirty years of being Buddhist. To date I've only published a full-length article on one such term: vedanā. The vedanā article in Contemporary Buddhism (Attwood 2018) introduced the idea of "Humpty Dumpty linguistics" to Buddhist Studies (though with nods to Lewis Carroll, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others who first described these cases). Most linguists in our field are fully committed to the semantic paradigm in which meaning is inherent in morphemes.

If we take this approach with vedanā however, we learn that the word comes from the causative root √ved "cause to know", from √vid "to know, understand, learn, be acquainted with, etc". The -ana suffix is used for actions nouns, that is nouns that name actions. So vedana means something like "that which causes knowledge", or as Monier-Williams defines it: "announcing, proclaiming, making known". As with a number of other Buddhist technical terms, the word is then used in the feminine gender vedanā, presumably to mark it as a technical term (as far as I know, this feature of the Buddhist lexicon has yet to be studied).

To be clear, a noun in Sanskrit cannot change its gender except when it is the second member of an adjectival compound, in which case it takes the case, gender, and number of the noun (or pronoun) it describes. Only adjectives routinely change their gender. Thus the existence of a form like vedanā is hard to explain using etymology and semantics. Wittgenstein pointed out:

“For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” (Wittgenstein 1967, section 43)

This passage is often condensed into "meaning is use", which is not a bad rule of thumb despite the impression compared to what he actually said. Vedanā is a case in point. Buddhists use it to mean "the positive and negative hedonic responses to the appearance (rūpa) of sensory experiences." And this is completely unrelated to its etymology. Translators have long argued whether these hedonic responses constitute "feelings" or "sensations", but really they are neither, they are hedonic responses, i.e. the judgement that something experienced is pleasant or unpleasant. Neuroscience has a term for this, i.e. valence. "Valence" is itself and example of Humpty Dumpty linguistics. The etymological sense is "strength, strong, etc"; from which we might take it to refer to "that which stands out". The use here also seems to draw on the chemistry sense of "capacity to form combinations": atoms that gain valence electrons are "electronegative" and those that lose them are "electropositive". And the amount of electro-positivity or -negativity is called the atom's "valency". Terms like "ferrous" and "ferric" for iron compounds reflect the different valencies of iron atoms. Incidentally, what do you call a load of Fe2+ ions in a circle? A ferrous wheel. (About all I remember from 2nd year inorganic chemistry). 

In what follows, I take a pragmatic approach, informed by my epistemic reading of Buddhists texts generally, and argue for a new approach to translating the skandhas. I pay attention both to pragmatic and prosodic factors rather than merely relying on semantics and the etymological fallacy. 

Conze’s translation of skandha as “heap” makes no sense, even as a metaphor, though it does seem to have some roots in later Buddhism. I have never found the standard translation—“aggregate”—helpful either. An aggregate (singular) is a loose collection of similar parts with no structure. One skandha is not an aggregate, and all together simply cannot be "the aggregates" (plural). In other words, the usual translations are incoherent. Conze was a great one for saying that logic had no place in Prajñāpāramitā, an attitude he developed at least ten years before he learned Sanskrit, as a graduate student in Germany ca 1928-1932. But he was wrong about logic generally, wrong about the role of logic in Buddhism, and wrong about the presence of logic-defying contradictions in Prajñāpāramitā texts. Rather, Mr Conze simply misunderstood the texts.

I've dug into both the etymology and use of skandha previously (e.g., Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics 2013) and concluded that the main reference is to "branching", though this is debatable, it suits my purposes very well. In 2021, I did a series of essays on the khandhas in Pāli according to Sue Hamilton (2000) and Tilmann Vetter (2000), the two most extensive surveys of the idea of the skandhas in Pāli, summed up here: Skandha 2021; individual essays begin here: Modern Interpretations of the Khandhas: Intro and Rūpa (2020).

Sue Hamilton (2000) refers to the skandhas as the “apparatus of experience”, which I think is a useful way of thinking about them. However, a detailed comparison of Hamilton (2000) and Vetter (2000),revealed one main weakness in both accounts: both place entirely too much emphasis on the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79) which turns out to be misleading.

rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear

Rūpa cannot mean “matter” for example, though it is frequently translated that way. Nor, contra both Hamilton and Vetter, can it mean “body”. Rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear. That is to say, rūpa does not refer to substance, it refers to outward appearance, to how things appear. In the Khajjanīya Sutta, rūpa is glossed as related to ruppati “it destroys” but I discovered a passage in Sanskrit that suggests this is simply a mistake. The noun rūpa is completely unrelated to the verbal root √rup “destroy, harm”. In a similar passage in Aṣṭa, the verb is rūpayati which is a denominative verb (e.g. like the verb medalling “to receive a medal”). Rūpa means “appearance” and rūpayati means “to appear”. And rūpa-skandha is a metonym for the general appearance of any sensory experience in the sensorium. That is to say rūpa reflects coming into sensory contact with an object: light hitting the eye, sound waves hitting the ear, chemicals wafting into the nose, etc. This is what kicks off sensory experience according to early Buddhist texts.

Our immediate response is hedonic, we enjoy the appearance or we don’t. Traditionally, as I said above, vedanā is the positive or negative hedonic response to sensory experience. Although it is less well known that some of the preferred translations, this concept actually corresponds very closely to what neuroscientists, such as Lisa Feldman-Barrett (2017) calls "valence". Valence means precisely the positive and negative hedonic response to sensory experience.

Saṃjñā is typically translated as "perception", but we can already see that this cannot be right. We must already have perceived an object in order to experience it, and in vedanā we are already experiencing it. In ordinary Sanskrit, saṃjñā is used in the sense of "designation" or "name". One of the main senses of the word is “to acknowledge or recognise” something. What we recognise at this point is the experience itself. This is where we discern the sui generis characteristics of the experience and put a name to the experience. Sui generis is more or less identical with the Sanskrit term svabhāva, at least as used in early Buddhist and Abhidharma literature. It was Nāgārjuna who introduced the idea that svabhāva means autopoietic, i.e. self-creating, the (faintly ridiculous) idea that something can be a condition for its own existence. Nāgārjuna insists that for something to be real, it must have svabhāva qua autopoiesis. Since nothing has or can have svabhāva in this sense, nothing is real. And hence many Buddhists (rightly) saw Madhyamaka as nihilistic.

Saṃskāra is a borrowed word and we get a sense of how Buddhists used it from looking at the original context. In Brahmanical religions, saṃskāra denotes a rite of passage: birth, death, marriage, first born son, etc. During such rites, the priests carry out specific ritual actions (karman). Thus a saṃskāra is "an occasion for performing karma". And this is why we say that samskāra is linked to volitions and explained by various types of cetanā "intention".

Finally, the one thing that vijñāna absolutely cannot mean is “consciousness” since there is no parallel concept in Buddhism because Buddhists resisted reifying sensory experience. Rather I take vijñāna to suggest that we discern the sensory experience as related to an object. This is the final stage in the objectification of experience. Something appears in our sensorium, we have a hedonic response, we recognise the experience and put a name to it, our hedonic responses drive karmic actions (those that contribute to rebirth), and finally we identify the object itself.


The skandhas, then, refer to a process of objectification of experience. This is how Iron Age Buddhists thought that humans processed sensory experience. The word itself probably means something like "branch" and the pañca skandhāḥ are "the five branches of experience". Individually the branches refer to

  • Rūpa = appearance
  • Vedanā = valence
  • Saṃjñā = recognition [of the experience]
  • Saṃskāra = volition, i.e. an opportunity for karma
  • Vijñāna = discrimination of the object one is perceiving.

And this account is far more coherent than any other I have come across. Moreover, properly contextualised by the absence of sensory experience it helps to explain Buddhist approaches to meditation and insight. This helps explain, for example, why withdrawing attention from sensory experience leads to an altered mental state in which we do not objectify experience.

As scholars and Buddhists both, we have to keep in mind that this is an Iron Age account of human perception. We live more than twenty centuries after it was current and we know a great deal more about this process now.

That said, the framework retains some usefulness for Buddhists as a framework for reflecting on the nature of sensory experience. By identifying such aspects in experience and noting that experience all has the same nature: i.e. experience is ephemeral, compared to the absence of experience it is unsatisfactory, and within experience, no entity (no thing) is to be found.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I have to insist that the absence of sense experience in samādhi is essential for contextualising Buddhist ideas. Moreover it is the metaphysically reticent accounts of this that are crucial: samādhi tells us nothing about reality, except that it allows for sapient beings to cut themselves off from sensory experience, ride out the effects of sensory deprivations, and arrive at a state of absence, cessation, extinction, etc. Without this perspective we are bound to come to the wrong conclusions about what Buddhists were getting at.

Of course a good deal of modern Buddhism completely lacks this perspective. Theravādins, for example, completely gave up on awakening, despite preserving instructions for how to attain it. They eventually abandoned meditation in favour of dry analysis of mental states. Traditions of awakening continued to exist in Mahāyāna Buddhist milieus however. Absence was still cultivated and still occurred in some meditators leading to traditions of "non-dual awareness".



Attwood, J. (2018). "Defining Vedanā: Through the Looking Glass." Contemporary Buddhism, 18(3): 31-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2018.1450959

Wittgenstein, L. 1967. Philosophical Investigations (3rd Ed). Basil Blackwell, 1986.

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