Tag Archives: buddhist philosophy

The Structure of “I”

Reference: Chapter 2 of Book: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What we call a ‘being’, ‘soul’, ‘individual’, or ‘I’, according to Buddhist philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies. These forces or energies may be divided into five groups or aggregates, as follows.


(1) Aggregates of Matter (both internal and external)

  • The Four Great Elements of Matter –
    • Solidity, Fluidity, Heat and Motion
  • Derivatives of the Four Great Elements –
      • The six internal faculties connected to material sense-organs
        • Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind
      • The corresponding six objects in the external world
        • Visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things and mind-objects (idea or thought)

(2) Aggregate of Sensations (both physical and mental)

  • Pleasant, unpleasant, neutral sensations
    • Experienced through the contact of internal faculties with the external objects
      • PHYSICAL
        • Eye with visible forms
        • Ear with sounds
        • Nose with odor
        • Tongue with taste
        • Body with tangible objects
      • MENTAL
        • Mind with mind-objects or thoughts or idea

(3) Aggregate of Perceptions (both physical and mental)

  • Recognition of physical and mental objects
    • Produced through the contact of internal faculties with the external objects
      • PHYSICAL
        • Visual perception when the eye contacts visible forms
        • Auditory perception when the ear contacts sounds
        • Olfactory perception when the nose contacts odors
        • Gustatory perception when the tongue contacts tastes
        • Tactile perception when the body contacts tangible objects
      • MENTAL
        • Mental perception when the mind contacts mind-objects (ideas and thoughts)

(4) Aggregate of Mental Formations

  • Exertion of volition (will, mental activity)
    • All volitional activities (both good and bad)
      • Attention, Will, Determination, Confidence, Concentration, Wisdom, Energy, Desire, repugnance or hate, Ignorance, Conceit, Idea of self, etc. (52 of them)
    • Karma (having willed, one acts through body, speech and mind)
      • Karmic effects
    • Connected with the six internal faculties and the corresponding six external objects
      • Visual, Auditory, Olfactory, Gustatory, Tactile, Mental

  (5) Aggregate of Consciousness

  • Consciousness is a reaction or response which has
    • One of the six faculties as its basis, and
    • One of the six corresponding external phenomena as its objects
  • Consciousness does not recognize an object
    • It is a sort of awareness of the presence of an object
  • Consciousness should not be taken as ‘spirit’ in opposition to matter.
    • Consciousness arises out of conditions
    • There is no arising of consciousness without conditions
  • Consciousness depends on matter, sensation, perception and mental formations
    •  It cannot exist independently of them.

Note: Sensations and perceptions do not produce karmic effects. It is only the volitional actions of mental formations that can produce karmic effects.


Thus, ‘being’, ‘individual’, or, ‘I’, is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these five groups. They are all impermanent, all constantly changing. They are not the same for two consecutive moments. Here A is not equal to A. They are in a flux of momentary arising and disappearing.

One thing disappears, conditioning the appearance of the next in a series of cause and effect. There is no unchanging substance in them. There is nothing behind them that can be called a permanent Self, individuality, or anything that can in reality be called ‘I’. But when these five physical and mental aggregates which are interdependent are working together in combination as a physio-psychological machine, we get the idea of ‘I’. But this is only a false idea of self. There is no other ‘being’ or ‘I’, standing behind these five aggregates.

There is no unmoving mover behind the movement. It is only movement. It is not correct to say that life is moving, but life is movement itself. Life and movement are not two different things. In other words, there is no thinker behind the thought. Thought itself is the thinker. If you move the thought, there is no thinker to be found. Here we cannot fail to notice how this Buddhist view is diametrically opposed to the Cartesian cogito ergo sum: ‘I think, therefore I am.’

This is counter-intuitive, indeed.