The Five Skandhas
Today I would like to share my recent thoughts about the five skandhas and how, with these five skandhas, a sense of self is constructed. I am not a scholar, just a practitioner. You should always check what I say in relation to your own experiences and understanding.
I imagine most of you, like me, first heard of the five skandhas through the Heart Sutra which begins, "Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the prajna paramita, perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering." The Heart Sutra then enumerates the five skandhas. In our translation, we use the five words form, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness. The Heart Sutra teaches that they are all empty.
I confess that for a really long time, the skandhas and what they refer to, were pretty impenetrable for me. They just kept glomming all together as an important list of things I was supposed to understand but really didn't. Part of what I appreciated about Zen was the lack of lists. Only recently have I been able to reach into these concepts and tease them apart in a meaningful way.
The first place where this teasing apart had an impactful meaning for me was when trying to sit zazen recently with really intense emotion. I found it helpful to stop trying to sit in non-discursive awareness, and I instead used the list of the five skandhas to label what I experienced arising. This created a spaciousness within my mental constructions. The Buddha taught that the five skandhas when clung to are dukkha, suffering. When we experience them without craving and clinging these are moments of awareness, and awareness transforms the experience of the skandhas. With intense emotion, it was easier to notice how it was all arising, what physical sensations and past experiences were contributing, and how the emotions evolved, etc., when I engaged with them in this way. It was possible to look at the process, and notice how without awareness these things would all come together to create a strong sense of self. Watching without clinging allowed a logical compassion to arise. It was an experience of, "Ah, no wonder these emotions and thoughts are arising. No wonder these feelings exist."
The Sanskrit word "skandha" means heap, bundle, or collection. There is form, which has materiality to it, then there are the other four skandhas, which are all mental in nature. Together all five of them are also known as nama-rupa in Sanskrit which means name and form. Nama-rupa, the five skandhas, when viewed together collectively constitute the human individual, what we take to be a self.
We each think differently. I often think in images as opposed to words so in my tiny brain some words feel completely impenetrable. There's just a blank wall there until some other words asso`ciated with it create a doorway. To understand the skandhas better I started looking into how they are defined in various places. Perhaps hearing several different words associated with each skandha will help spark your brain to new understanding as well.
First, there is rupa or form. Other English terms used for form are physicality, corporeality, materiality, and substance. It consists of solid and fluid. When talking about the five skandhas, form refers to our own body and the forms we take as objects outside of ourselves to which we relate as the subject.
Second is vedana or what we call feelings. I used to think this meant emotions like happiness, sorrow, etc., but it refers to sensations and consists of all sensations. It is the experience of sensations at the level of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In the book, The Tiger's Cave, Zen teacher, Abbott Obora says that sensation is denoted in Chinese by a character that literally means receiving. It is the function of mind and body by which everything is taken in.
Third is samjna or perception. Other terms used include discrimination and conceptual identification. It includes the perception or conceptual identification of form, sound, smell, taste, bodily impressions, and mental objects. According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, samjna refers to the mental function of differentiating and identifying objects through the apprehension of their specific qualities. Samjna is the perception of objects in such a way that when the object is perceived again it can be readily recognized and categorized conceptually. And of course, this is useful and necessary in day-to-day living. Samjna is considered the factor that perceives pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations as such, and gives rise to attraction, aversion, and other afflictions that motivate action. Abbot Obora uses the words, "thinking in notions, in ideas." He says that in the skandha we call perception, things that have been taken in (through sensation) are recollected, and by this function, there is attachment to them."
Fourth is samskara or formations. Other words used are mental formations, volition, volitional action, volitional factors, conditioning factors, and impulses. The term formations confused me for a really long while because samskara or formation, can mean anything that is made up of other things, like a flower, or a car, or an emotion, which is pretty much everything! The Buddha famously said, "All conditioned things (samskara) are impermanent." When discussing the skandhas, formation refers to our mental formations and it refers to conditioning factors such as the seeds in storehouse consciousness and also conditioning forces that we don't usually associate with consciousness (unless you are enlightened maybe) such as duration, and time. The skandha of formations includes the majority of mental activities such as volition, attention, discrimination, joy, happiness, equanimity, resolve, exertion, compulsion, concentration, etc. Formations make up the impulses to act, to do something about that pleasant or unpleasant sensation that was perceived. Abbot Obora says the general meaning of the Chinese character used for formations is action and it means the action of the mind prior to speech or outer activity.
The last skandha is vijnana or consciousness. We generally think in terms of six types of consciousness: visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental consciousness. Consciousness must be present when a sense organ meets an object if there are to be feelings and perceptions. For example, the eye organ, which is a physical form, can not perceive color without eye consciousness present. That is, dead people don't see color, and eyes without eye consciousness for other reasons such as blindness don't see color. Abbott Obora calls consciousness "the mind-lord" which decides good or bad, right or wrong, i.e. discriminative thinking. I find it helpful to put the adjective discriminative in front of this consciousness.
When I started looking into these words and reading definitions I, of course, came across many more words that I needed to look up, and of course many other lists as is the nature of Original Buddhism. I wouldn't have had the patience for any of this if I hadn't already been experiencing the deconstruction of the self into these various aspects in zazen.
In the Heart Sutra, all the skandhas are negated. Avalokiteshvara sees that they are all empty. In Mahayana Buddhism, especially Zen, emptiness is the word we tend to use to talk about anatman or non-self, the absence of self. It is a key doctrine in all Buddhism that both individuals and objects are completely devoid of any unchanging, eternal or autonomous aspect. According to the Buddha, the human subject can be deconstructed into these five categories of skandhas without any remainder. In Zen and in the Buddha's original teaching the belief in a soul or any unchanging substratum within a person is a form of mistaken identity.
Some schools of Buddhism, such as those of our Chinese ancestors, describe this truth of the emptiness of all things with the word suchness. Some schools use the word buddha-nature to describe this reality. This can get tricky because sometimes we then start to see buddha-nature, or suchness, as something eternal and unchanging within everything, which is in direct contradiction to the Buddha's teaching. The Buddha teaches that the only eternal and unchanging characteristic that can be found in anything is that it is impermanent and it is made up of other impermanent things that actually aren't things at all. Because those characteristics are impermanent and ever-changing they can be called no characteristics!
Emptiness, in contrast to suchness and buddha-nature, can sound cold and can lead people to a rather nihilistic view which is equally incorrect. I find it helpful to think of all these different words as human consciousness working through-out space and time to try to understand itself.
Emptiness, suchness, boundlessness — as Halifax and Tanahashi often interpret it, buddha-nature — none of these words describe a thing with substantiality.
Emptiness is not some thing that exists, neither is buddha-nature. It is a way things are experienced, a way that what we perceive as things, are happening. What we perceive as objects, or as selves are mere appearances. A mere appearance isn't nothing, but what we see is not fixed and unchanging. It is changing and it is co-dependently arising and dissipating in dependence on other mere appearances. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
In Dogen's teaching, the Maka Hannya Haramitsu, he enumerates the five skandhas as instances of prajna, wisdom. As the first line in the Heart Sutra says, "Avalokiteshvara, when practicing deeply the prajna paramita perceived all skandhas as empty. Prajna paramita means Perfection of Wisdom. It refers to a wisdom beyond ordinary wisdom and is often said to be the wisdom that does not conceive of an agent (self), an object, or any action as being ultimately real. By real we generally mean permanent and substantial. In Zen, we generally mean the experience of emptiness or the truth of "things as it is" when using the term prajna paramita. This is Buddha's wisdom — the wisdom of nondiscrimination. It is considered the Mother of all Buddhas.
In the Maka Hannya Haramitsu, Dogen labels everything from the Heart Sutra as prajna instead of emptiness, and regularly articulates his experience of zazen to help us understand Buddha's teaching. And what he is articulating in Maka Hannya Haramitsu is the path the Buddha taught: that if we stop and see what the skandhas really are with non-discursive awareness, and notice how they come together to create a sense of self, this experience changes how we perceive and experience them and our sense of self and this relieves suffering. This turning the light around to shine within to see how what we generally perceive as a self is arising from these different elements leads to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls transformation at the base. Abbot Obora says this is satori — when the real character of everything is seen.
I think for an advanced practitioner like Master Dogen, the transformation is wide-sweeping and all-encompassing. For the Buddha, it led to the complete extinguishing of all delusions including the delusion of the existence of any independent self. After this awakening, the Buddha no longer referred to himself as an "I," only as the Tathagata. To see the emptiness of the skandhas is to transform the clinging-aggregates that reinforce our sense of I, to just aggregates — they are seen as they truly are. According to Abbot Obora, "The condition... of awakening to the truth about one's body and mind, is the realization that the five aggregates are all Emptiness. Enlightenment is fully grasping this. Hitherto the five have not been Emptiness, but now there is a clear understanding of what they are."
Even if we can't or don't experience a complete transformation like the Buddha, we can all have glimpses and experiences that help guide us in our lives. In our meal chant, we talk about the natural order of mind being free from greed, hate, and delusion. Greed, hate and delusion all relate to the belief in an independent self. In zazen, anyone may experience moments of the natural order of mind in which greed, hate and delusion are not arising. The first time it is experienced and the ten billionth time are not exactly the same but they are not different. They are both experiences of the natural order of mind, free of greed, hate, and delusion.
In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara looked at the five skandhas, the five heaps, aggregates or elements, that compose what we think of as a self, and found them empty. Empty of what is always a useful question to ask. Empty of own being, svabhava. They are empty of an independent self-nature.
To understand what this emptiness of self or own being is, I find the cart analogy very helpful. Picture a cart, a simple four-wheeled cart with sides, and maybe an attached harness for a horse to pull it. The "cart" is there, but if we take it apart, we see that there are many things that come together to make the cart, and among those many things, there is no one thing or one place where the cart-ness of the cart is located. If we remove one wheel is it still a cart? What about two wheels? What if we remove all the sides and all the wheels and set them all out near one another, is it still a cart? What if we take all those pieces and place them in various locations, is it still a cart? At what point does it stop being a cart and where did the cart-ness go?
In the beginning of my study of Zen, I thought we were trying to understand the nature of a reality out there outside of ourselves. I was looking for a truth outside of me that with practice I might come to see. This is what I thought the common Zen phrase, "seeing things as they are or as it is," meant. Over time it has become clear to me however that my mind always plays a role in what I perceive. As living beings there is no objective world outside of the five skandhas that is reachable to us without using our own bodies and minds to experience it. The nearest we come to objectivity is to see how our minds function in creating what we perceive and experience.
The Buddha taught about the truth and reality of our own minds, how they function, and most specifically how we create suffering and how we can relieve it. There are many questions he never answered. According to Thanissaro Bhikku of the Tai Forest tradition, the Buddha never actually specifically answered the question of whether a self exists or not in an ontological sense. The Buddha did use the teaching of non-self to help us understand how what we perceive as an inde-pendent self is a delusion, but when asked straight out about it, he remained silent. Perhaps because in the truth of prajna, of non-discursive awareness, concepts like self or no-self are not applicable. They're just concepts.
Okumura Roshi will often speak about how a hand is both one hand and also a collection of fingers. We can break the fingers down further into being composed of skin, flesh, bone, and marrow. Each of these elements can also be broken down. Marrow, for example, can then be broken down further into red marrow, yellow marrow, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Red blood cells can be broken down into the various part of a cell, etc., until you end up with nothing. We can't name one aspect among all of these elements that by itself makes the hand the hand. All things are like this.
What we call an individual self is the same way. If we look very closely and experience with full awareness, we can experience the breakdown of the self into the five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness, and all these can also be broken down. The form — our body — can be broken down similarly to the way we broke down the hand. Sensations have texture and nuance, they come and go. Formations come together through past experiences, thoughts, genetics, and karma etc. When we sit and experience the arising and passing away of these various elements without attachment, a loosening occurs. The fallacy of a concrete identity becomes clearer. Body and mind are dropped off.
When I think of the skandhas and how they form a concrete sense of self I think of a rope. The self is like a thick sturdy rope. Sustained awareness of mind and experiences and what is arising, is like a sharp tool pulling apart all the strands of fiber, first at a grosser level then at a finer and finer level until there is no rope there at all, just the various strands. A new awareness of how we and others come to be who and what we are emerges, and compassion for how beings come to be who and what they are emerges. I imagine that in this analogy, the Buddha deconstructed that rope of self into tiny strands then into small microfibers, then molecules, then atoms! Poof!
So here I am trying to give a talk on the skandhas and non-self. I am giving a talk on how there is no self. That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? I am really here at some level, and I feel very much like an individual with a specific job to do right now which is to try to talk about how Zen tells us there is no independent self. That there is no self doesn't mean nothing is here. So what is causing this attempt at a talk? It is an unfathomable number of causes and conditions through beginningless space and time coming together to attempt this talk. Neil DeGrasse said, "The very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy."
We could try to think of all the various streams of aggregates and energy and strands of karma that have twisted and intertwined and come together through time to this moment of being in this position of formulating words to convey concepts to other streams of aggregates with the intention of helping alleviate suffering. Different possible causes and conditions would have led to these five skandhas being engaged in other activities right now such as possibly sitting outdoors having a cup of coffee, possibly even a cigarette. Or, getting on the subway in NYC, or sleeping after a late night at work. Previous activities in which these (points to self) streams of skandhas engaged could have led to any one of those scenarios at this moment if other choices were made, which would have created different trajectories from the current one.
These five skandhas also co-arise differently when in different circumstances. Here I am Zenki. Among old friends, this is Kath, with my partner I am Leenie unless he is unhappy with me. With my stepdad, I was MFZ "My Favorite Zenki." I say those words and I hear his raspy voice and laughter and that evokes memories and loving emotions arise. Now that he is gone I am no longer MFZ to anyone.
Noticing what volitional formations are pushing what states of mind towards what expressions with this corporal form — this is what we are doing in zazen. Not with a specific goal to accomplish something or to gain something, just an interest, and curiosity in seeing what's there. And all these words to navigate what it is can be very helpful. That's probably why Dogen wrote so many words. Lucky us! Understanding the words conceptually however is not the activity itself and does not constitute the wisdom that Avalokiteshvara is practicing in the Heart Sutra, the experience of emptiness.
In The Tiger's Cave, Abbott Obora equates an empty heart with Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion. It may be difficult at first to equate an empty heart with compassion. An empty heart may sound cold, but if you think about it an empty heart has a lot of room for whatever and whomever it meets. An empty heart isn't full of opinions. It has spaciousness, and room to accept others where they are without an agenda.
We don't need to worry about whether we can achieve some kind of state of complete emptiness or completely extinguish our delusive belief in an independent self. Anything we think about these things is just deluded notions. As Dogen says, "When you realize buddha-dharma, you do not think, 'This is realization just as I expected. ...Realization is not like your conception of it...You should reflect on this: What you think one way or another before realization is not a help for realization." We can just appreciate the adventure of seeing what is arising and allow the loosening of our grasp on a specific self, to guide us.
Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi said, "Bodhisattva mind is the mind which is always turning toward practice, which means it is always fundamentally grounded in emptiness and is expressed through our activity. Bodhisattva mind is the mind which is always giving up self-centeredness in order to see into the truth. So we always keep returning to that mind. It's like sitting zazen, we have all this activity going on and thoughts are coming up and desires keep arising. So in daily life, when some question comes up, you return your mind to the Fundamental, in order to come to a decision. How does my decision accord with this non self-centered view? If you keep doing that, then you're continuously practicing."
© Dec. 2022, Zenki Kathleen Batson