This post really just re-iterates Bhante Sujato’s dhamma talk on the evolution of consciousness. You can find it–> here.
Let’s say, you try to understand the different steps that are are needed for consciousness to arise – according to the early Buddhist teachings. You will soon come across the concept of the five khandhas.
It is one of these lists that Buddhism has so many of. Three of these, seven of that, eight steps on a path, ten factors necessary for something else and so on…
Over the first years of me studying the early Buddhist teachings, I was mostly utterly confused by the amount of lists. Years later I finally realized (aka got told) that if the Buddhist teachings were transmitted orally for many hundred years, it is to be expected that the monks used mnemonic devices to ease their work load. Hence the many lists. If you know that you should have eight steps on the path, you will quickly notice when you miss one.
So, how do you memorize a short list? This gets pretty obvious, when you look at the five khandhas. This is a list that is referred to in the suttas most of the time as >The five grasping khandhas< (pañca-upadanakhandha).
Hmm, five and grasping, where have we heard that before? You can almost see a monk sitting in ancient India teaching a young student the five khandhas while counting his fingers, starting with his pinky:
First you haverūpawhich is the whole physical realm, then comes vedanā, the feeling of attraction, aversion or neutral. Number three is saññā, which is the capacity that takes the diversity of sense data and constructs meaningful symbolic abstractions. Number four issaṅkhārawhich in this context is ethical intention.
Now we have four fingers. But since we are humans, we want to grasp for something with our hand (probably just to cling to it later). How does a hand grasp? With the thumb in opposition. Thank you Evolution. And what is the thumb? The thumb is khandha number five,viññāṇa, the consciousness, which closes(!) over the other four fingers. Isn’t that neat? I find that awesome.
As Bhante Sujato points out in his talk, the teaching of the five khandhas probably pre-dates the time of the Buddha. In the suttas it seems to be kind of understood what they are, they never are explicitly defined or explained. They are used as a way of classifying theories of the self and it’s development using the five aggregates as a framework. In this way the five aggregates map the evolution of consciousness. From something that is very basic and physical (form) to something that is very complex and abstract like awareness or purified consciousness.