Human personality

What is a human?

Amalasiddhi talks about his life as a Buddhist

What is a human being if there is no such thing as the self (anatta)? The teachings of the khandas or sunyata help to explain this basic Buddhist idea.

Khandas (Theravada)

In Theravada Buddhism, a human is understood to be a combination of five elements, known as ‘khandas’. This word can be translated as ‘heaps’, ‘collection’ or ‘aggregates’. A human is made up of five heaps:

  • form or body
  • conciousness
  • sensation
  • mental formations or thoughts
  • perception
Infographic depicting the Five Skandas

This awareness helps Buddhists to see that there is no one thing called the ‘self’, but a collection of things that in themselves are always changing.

Sunyata (Mahayana)

In Mahayana Buddhism, the khandas that make up a human are seen as empty. ‘Sunyata’ translates as ‘emptiness’ or ‘without form’. The teaching of sunyata helps Buddhists to understand that there is no fixed, stable self, and there is no fixed, stable universe. Because everything is dependent on something else (dependent origination), nothing has a form of its own. This is true of the five khandas and therefore the self.

Anicca, anatta and dependent origination

According to the fundamental idea of dependent origination, everything depends on something else for its existence. Nothing exists in a stable form, or is independent of anything else. This can also be described as anicca, or the impermanence of the universe.

This concept is applied to humans through the idea of anatta, or no fixed self. All things in existence, including the human self, will come and go, appear and disappear, be strong and weak. The human is a collection of interconnected and interdependent elements.

Diamond Sutta – This is an influential Mahayana teaching book (‘sutta’). It contains an explanation of anatta, or no fixed self. We can be freed from desire and craving in coming to see that there is no self.

Buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha)

The idea of Buddha-nature is particularly emphasised in Mahayana Buddhism. It means that within all humans is a potential Buddha, or the potential to become enlightened. The phrase ‘Buddha-nature’ is translated from the Sanskrit compound word tathagatagarbha. Breaking this word down is helpful in understanding what it means:

  • tatha means ‘one who has come’
  • gata mean ‘one who has gone’
  • garbha means ‘womb’ or ‘embryo’

In Buddhism, all humans have the potential to become enlightened. The path to enlightenment involves understanding that the universe and humans are not stable. Instead, they are ever changing and formless, and have no fixed essence.


What are the five khandas?

The five khandas (‘heaps’) that make up a human are form or body, consciousness, sensation, mental formations or thoughts and perception.