Five Skandhas and the New Millennium
by Martin Goodson
be because we are coming to the end of one millennium and
about to enter another that there is a great interest in news
stories that signal the end of the world. In 1998, a new film
was released called 'Deep Impact'. It was about a comet colliding
with Earth. At the time, a space agency revealed that in the
twenty-first century, Earth will narrowly miss a collision
with an asteroid that will cross its orbit. Although the warning
turned out to greatly overestimate the danger, it provided
a great platform to launch the film and, from Hollywood's
point of view, could not have been better timed.
years ago in parts of Europe, the population was also in the
grip of an end-of-time fever. Then, of course, the carrier
was not science but religion. Christianity has always had
a strong eschatological teaching and indeed the early Christians
believed that the end of the world was imminent. The turn
of the first millennium provided an opportunity for this fear
to manifest. They were convinced that the world was about
to be destroyed in a great battle between God and the Antichrist
and that this battle would usher in the New Kingdom.
our collective concern for the future of our species is aimed
at asteroids colliding with Earth or at man's effect on the
environment, we should not forget that medieval Europeans'
fears were every bit as real to them as ours are to us. It
is not whether our scientific concerns are true or not but
our obsession with the belief in our mass destruction at this
particular time that is so reminiscent of the turn of the
first millennium. In this way we share something with those
people of one thousand years ago and the struggle against
a feeling of powerlessness in a universe that is so much larger
people, however, at least could take comfort in being the
chosen few who would be saved and make it into the New Kingdom.
As we have lost our religious values by and large, we are
more subject to the darker side of nature, whether from the
vastness of space or from the powerful forces within the human
heart that guide our actions for good or ill. Science may
give us explanations about how things happen but it cannot
help us to forge a relationship with these powers and with
the universe. We simply do not understand why things are the
way they are. Why is it that we have evolved so far and yet
in a moment may be wiped out by a meteor or a new killer disease?
Why is it that some people carry out the most horrific and
calculated crimes, so much so that our media seem obsessed
by such acts of cruelty, going over and over their causes
in an effort to make sense of them? Why do even we ourselves,
often acting against our better judgment, almost monotonously
carry out acts that we know will only make trouble for us
and those we hold dear?
and contrariness of life can be just too overwhelming, and
most of the time we distract ourselves from these dilemmas.
Otherwise, we would become caught up in the apparent pointlessness
of it all and be swamped by our helplessness. In extreme cases
this mood can lead to our own demise, as in the legend of
the Lorelei, who lured travelers into swampy ground to drown
of alienation from the universe and from our own inherent
nature, which reveals our place in it, has led us into this
predicament. What we need is to reestablish a link with that
which lies beyond the restricted horizon of this self, to
find something that can help us to forge a relationship with
those natural forces within us upon which we have turned our
back. In order to do this, we need a map to show us the way.
doctrinal formula given us by the Buddha contains an insight.
But it is not enough that this insight is realized on an intellectual
level only. The intellect, for all its development, does not
go deep enough to satisfy the whole human being. There is
too much within us that lies unknown and often in direct opposition
to the will of the intellect. An insight acts as a center
of gravity different from that of 'I', 'me' and 'mine'. In
order for such an insight to ripen, a wholehearted awareness
must be cultivated. This of course is going to conflict with
'my' wishes, normal habits and concerns that otherwise distract
me. At times it will feel like going against the grain to
work with a particular formula as more and more it comes into
conflict with the attitude of 'I', 'me' and 'mine'. These
emotional onslaughts must be borne if the insight is to bear
fruit. In fact it is the energy that powers these emotional
uprushes that will gradually loosen the bonds of 'I' and at
the same time nurture the developing insight into consciousness.
It is important to realize that as this process continues,
small precursor insights will arise and that it will be tempting
to stop and intellectualize them. This, however, would sustain
the formation of 'my opinions', thus making further insights
impossible, as true insight is not an idea but something fluid,
something alive that will manifest slightly differently in
different situations. This is something that the intellect
with its 'either/or' approach cannot do.
in the formula of the Five Skandhas is the realization that
no part of the human mind-body is a separate 'self' or 'I'.
The skandhas are like a river. It may have a particular name
such as 'Thames' but it never remains the same; it is in constant
flux. And when awareness of this flowing, changing quality
of the skandhas is sufficiently cultivated, we realize this
from moment to moment.
skandha is Form (rupa), which takes in the physical senses
and their objects &endash; shape and colour, sounds, tastes,
smells, tactile objects. Form stands for the body and the
physical world. We need to be aware of our cultural conditioning
as regards both our bodies and the physical world in general.
Our native religion places great emphasis upon the separation
of the spirit from the material world and views the latter
as flawed and even intrinsically evil. This view is an example
of the lopsidedness of 'I', of how 'I' likes to split things
into extremes and place them in opposition to each other.
Of late, this dislike and mistrust of the body has swung to
the other extreme. This other view sees 'my body' as a temple
to 'me'. It is here as a center to my life and to give me
satisfaction. I like to pamper it and dress it up and compare
it to the bodies of others. I feel a need to constantly reshape
it, dye it, pierce it, tattoo it and, most important of all,
protect it from old age. Alas, old age cannot be kept at bay
forever: the body changes over time in accordance with nature,
not my wishes, and my attitude changes as I begin to hate
and despise it because it has let me down. In order to compensate
for this, I may change my values and turn to the spirit for
comfort. Remember, in our Western view spirit and matter are
quite separate, and in this way I can ignore my body. But
the emotional highs of the spirit are not fulfilling either.
I am caught between an overemphasis on the body or a negation
of it. I am never at ease with the body.
to be recognized for what it is &endash; Buddha-nature in
corporeal form. Buddha-nature gives rise to all forms yet
it is neither a form in itself nor separate from form. It
manifests from one moment to the next, and to try to cling
to it is to try to capture the liveliness of a river in a
with the body and the situation the body is in is an excellent
way to cultivate Awareness (sati). It provides an anchor and
something to keep giving myself to when my thoughts and underlying
passions or emotions (klesa) carry me away. Every few moments
we can refresh our awareness of the five senses. Or we can
use one sense in particular just to 'ground' ourselves: when
I become aware of being carried away by a daydream or other
'head noise', I can open up instead and really listen, as
if someone is calling my name. Alternatively, I can become
aware of my feet on the ground or my behind on the chair.
In this way I give myself into Form, sink into Form, become
absorbed into Form.
arising of sensory consciousness, Sensation (vedana), the
second skandha, comes to be. Sensations are pleasant, unpleasant
or neutral. This is the subjective experience of them. In
terms of our behavior it is movement towards, away from or
neither towards nor away from something. Sensation acts as
a motivating force on the instinctual level. It moves us away
from danger or an undesirable situation, and towards things
that are conducive to our well-being, rather like a cat moves
from a cold spot to a warmer place. But if the warm place
becomes too hot, vedana will arise and the cat will move to
a cooler spot. Plants too move according to vedana, moving
their leaves and flowers towards the sun and their roots towards
water. Their shoots grow upward and their roots downward.
We humans experience vedana in the same way. I may be absorbed
in reading a favorite book, and suddenly a delicious smell
from the kitchen wafts under my nose. In a flash attention
shifts from the book to the pleasant smell 'Ah, dinner!'
following the breath or counting the out-breath is mundane.
It can be experienced as boring, as an unpleasant Sensation.
Immediately craving arises and as a result, there is grasping
for something more pleasant. Thoughts arise and are experienced
as pleasant, thus I become absorbed in them until some time
later the awareness arises that I have been daydreaming, and
once again it is back to meditation. This process of slipping
into pleasant day dreams happens unconsciously, which is why
the conscious experience is of suddenly coming to oneself
and realizing that day dreaming has been taking place. I do
not 'choose' to think. If, however, we are fully conscious
of vedana and completely given into or absorbed into it, then
no outflow takes place and no craving arises. Awareness of
this process gives rise to the insight that vedana is conditioned
by the arising of sensory consciousness and in turn conditions
the arising of craving. In other words, there is no 'doer'
or subject to be bored by meditation, and no one who decides
to think about something more pleasant instead. Understanding
that vedana can be habituated leads us to see why difficulties
arise in changing old patterns of behavior and adopting new
ones that are conducive to the Buddha's Way.
(samjña) is the third skandha and it involves identifying
and recognizing the data that arise from the sense gates.
It brings objects into consciousness and names them. Thus
if I look at a crowd of people and recognize the face of an
old friend, that face will seem to stand out. Perception recognizes
by selecting two or three characteristics and committing them
to memory. So if, for example, my friend has a distinctive
hair style, that will be a primary characteristic for identification.
However, should my friend change his hair style, I may not
recognize him for a moment when next I see him. I must rely
on the other, unchanged characteristics. Thus we can see that
the faculty of recognition relies on recognizing external
characteristics and matching them to memories. All perceived
objects are seen as collections of these characteristics.
As these are all subject to change, there is no essential
self-hood to any perceived form.
Mental Objects (samskara), the fourth skandha, consist of
thoughts, dreams, wishes, imaginings, emotions etc. It is
important to understand that 'volitional', by an act of will,
refers to the passions (klesa). Any volitional action, whether
in thought, word or deed, is 'I' trying to get something or
to get rid of something, thus the awareness of 'self' is born
out of the energy manifesting as the passions. This means
that far from being separate from my thoughts and feelings,
I am my thoughts and feelings and will act in accordance with
the nature of that particular emotion. Consequently, a sense
of self born from aversion just wants to get rid of the undesired
object, and the thoughts that arise are aversive, aggressive
or withdrawn. A self that is born from the emotion of desire
wants something. The resulting feelings of craving and grasping
are only concerned with the desired object and cannot rest
until the desire burns itself out. This shows up the futility
of trying to push unwanted mental states away. The pushing
and the desire to push are born from the mental state of aversion
that I am trying to get rid of.
in Buddhist training is to take these feelings and thoughts
and allied mental states as real. In fact, they are like a
dream. The dreamer does not know that he is dreaming: he is
part of the dream and cannot be separated from it. The dream
seems quite real, just as in waking life the physical world
is quite real. Nor is it of use to say there is nothing real
to be afraid of to someone who is terrified of spiders. The
fear is quite real. The feeling of threat is real. Thoughts
then arise that compound and reinforce the feeling. Maybe
this spider has escaped from a zoo and has a fatal bite! We
know only too well how in a crisis the mind manufactures thoughts
that always seek to establish the current mental state.
thoughts and states do not remain the same; they constantly
change. Even powerful emotions do not last. If something has
really upset me, and we know how that goes, I go over the
grievance in my mind, re-visiting it again and again. But
just try to maintain the level of anger. A point will come
when it begins to subside. At that moment try to keep up the
irritation. Even if I try by going over the irritating scene
in my head, sooner or later I shall be distracted by something
else. Other mental states arise and crowd the anger out. Someone
talks to me and I become involved in a conversation or something
interesting comes on the TV. Yet when a powerful emotion is
in full spate, it is not possible to concentrate on anything
else. Even if a distraction would normally interest me, I
cannot give it my full attention, as the anger will not let
me go. Thus we can see that such a state, with its accompanying
thoughts and wishes, fears and hopes and imaginings, expectations
and longings, is not mine. It comes and goes as forces outside
'my control' dictate, and these forces are much stronger than
I. As anyone involved in a Buddhist training knows, these
forces are constantly creating distractions from this moment,
and this 'me' is generated by those selfsame states from moment
(vijñana), the fifth skandha, is the way by which the
other skandhas are known. Everything manifests itself through
Consciousness. Nothing can come into existence without it.
Consciousness, on the other hand, cannot arise without an
object, thus there is no such thing as 'empty- of-all-objects
Consciousness'. Buddhist terms such as emptiness or void (sunyata)
mean that Consciousness is empty of anything permanent and
is in a constant state of flux, that nothing exists without
prior cause or condition and that there is nothing separate
or independent from Consciousness.
Chah once gave a beautiful metaphor for just this. He likened
meditation to a pool in a forest. Day after day animals come
to drink from it. Some of these animals are well known; some
are strange. All of them come for a long or short time but
sooner or later they all disappear back into the darkness
of the forest.
we must understand that the insight within the Five Skandhas
does not arise by me intellectually puzzling things out. It
arises, as intimated above, by immersing myself in the stream
of life, by being as open and attentive as possible to the
skandhas as they come and go. It is the difference between
wandering through the landscape with my head lowered, wrapped
in thoughts about me, my problems and what I want and don't
want, and holding my head up and opening up to that landscape
of which for the time being I am part.
Skandhas, by Mark Goodson
Journal - The Middle Way Journal