The Five Skandhas and the New Millennium

by Martin Goodson


It may 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.

One thousand 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.

Whether 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 than us.

Those 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?

The contradictions 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 them.

A feeling 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.

Every 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.

The insight 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.

The first 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.

Form needs 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 teacup.

Staying 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.

With the 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!'

In meditation, 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.

Perception (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.

Volitional 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.

Our mistake 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.

These 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 to moment.

Consciousness (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.

Ajahn 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.

Finally, 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.

The Five Skandhas, by Mark Goodson
Journal - The Middle Way Journal