This is Article No 3 in the ‘5 Wisdoms’ series. It is one of three introductory articles to a longer series of articles in which I shall be exploring each the five ’empty’ skandhas of Buddhist tradition – the five non-personal cognitive-perceptual components, which come together to create the illusion of a separate self.
The Dharmādhatu Wisdom, the central Wisdom in the Five Wisdoms mandala, refers to the non-dual understanding that the historical Buddha referred to in terms of Emptiness (Pali – suññatā; Sanskrit – shūnyatā) – the absence of any separate self-nature in all beings and in all things. So the Dharmādhatu Wisdom can be thought of as the ability to rest as Consciousness knowing that the root of that experience is entirely impersonal. It can also be characterised as the knowledge that Consciousness is like a single universal light; or an all-pervading expanse of benevolent intelligence; or as a infinite compassionate space in which we, and everything else, are held and loved.
The Dharmādhatu Wisdom is also the wisdom of Mindfulness, the wisdom of Balance, the wisdom of Humility – but especially, it is the wisdom of Emptiness. Importantly, Buddhist tradition tells us that if we manage to acheive a degree of spiritual development without endeavouring to also recognise Emptiness, we will personalise our experience of Consciousness, and will be trapped in the spiritual delusion and refined narcissism that are the culture and consciousness of the Deva Lokas, or God Realms – which I briefly described in my previous article (here).
Consciousness, Mindfulness, and ‘Remembering’
Mindfulness and Consciousness are very closely related, but not synonymous. The objective and collective space of Consciousness does not need to be cultivated, but Mindfulness does. To be Mindful is to be choosing to rest as Consciousness in the midst of life. We cultivate Mindfulness by a process of more fully ‘embodying’ Consciousness in various ways. The Buddha talked about this process of embodying Consciousness in a variety of ways – often using four-fold mandala formulations like the brahmavihāras, or five-fold mandala formulations like the ‘Five Skandhas‘ and the ‘Five Spiritual Faculties’ (indriyas). One of the Buddha’s most important formulations however, was the four ‘Foundations of Mindfulness’ (satipatthāna – Pali; smrtyupasthāna – Sanskrit) – yet another expression of the mandala archetype. I shall be exploring these four categories in detail in future articles, but have listed them in the table below, and in the second of the two mandala diagrams below that.
While we might at first think that we become conscious, or realise Consciousness, by a heroic effort of personal will power, this is an inadequate way of describing the process. Rather, we become conscious by acknowledging that Consciousness is who we are – in essence. The path therefore is better characterised as one in which we ‘rest’, and allow Consciousness to pervade all our activities. This allowing, this surrender to our true nature, this ‘letting go’ process, by which the light and space of Consciousness is received into every fibre of our being, and pervades every nook and cranny of our lives, is Mindfulness. This process of the embodiment of Consciousness via an attitude of receptivity, relaxation, surrender, and ‘resting’, can be characterised as feminine, relative to the intentional, purposeful, willful attitude, which is more often associated with Mindfulness, and which can be characterised as masculine. The validation of this more neglected attitude, which we can think of as archetypally feminine, is one of the main themes of this article.
We achieve the development of Mindfulness primarily by choosing to ‘rest as Consciousness’ whenever we remember to do so in the midst of life. Hence (as I described previously here), the Buddha described Mindfulness as a ‘remembering’ practice. The Pali word sati, and the Sanskrit word smRti, which are translated as Mindfulness, literally mean ‘memory’ or ‘remembering’, but in essence the practice is one of cultivating awareness by more fully integrating the always-present reality of Consciousness into every aspect of our being. If we fail to see the Buddha as a man who wished us to be more fully conscious in every possible way (psychologically, socially, politically, environmentally, etc.) and to be freed from the harm that unconsciousness causes, we are missing him – and failing to integrate his teachings into our modern sense of ethics, citizenship, psychological self-awareness, and personal creativity. Mindfulness is a very subtle conceptual construct however – much more subtle than is generally acknowledged. Please consider reading my earlier article on Mindfulness (here).
The ‘Five Skandhas‘ and the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’
I am of the opinion that Mindfulness practice cannot be fully understood without reference to the Buddha’s non-duality teachings, which he framed in terms of Emptiness. The detail of the Buddha’s explanation of his notion of Emptiness is found in his teachings on the Five Skandhas – or to be precise, in his critique of the ancient Indian ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching, in which he demonstrates ‘the Emptiness of all Five Skandhas’. As I explained in my previous post (here), prior to the Buddha, the ancient Indian Five Skandhas framework was seen as a description of the cognitive-perceptual components of a personal self or soul. The Buddha used that previously established framework, which would have been known to many of his students, but drew a very different conclusion, by showing that the Five Skandhas – Consciousness and its four cognitive-perceptual components, or functions – are in fact ’empty’ of personal characteristics.
The Buddha built his ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ framework, on the solid base provided by his ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching. We can think of the Buddha’s Skandhas teaching as a guide to meditation and contemplation – a self-enquiry framework for familiarising ourselves with the empty nature of both Consciousness and its four cognitive-perceptual components. The practice of self-enquiry into the ‘Five Skandhas‘ was primarily through meditative exploration of the internal, or somatic, experience of embodied Consciousness. The Buddha’s ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ teaching, on the other hand, would originally have been recognised as essentially the same as his ‘Five Skandhas‘ non-duality teaching, presented in a different way, and with a more active, external, and practical focus.
I have talked about the somatic experience of embodied Consciousness in some detail in several previous articles (here, here, here and here) – generally without direct reference to the Skandhas, which I have feared might seem rather academic and abstract to a non-Buddhist audience. We cannot avoid them however, if we are to fully grasp the Buddha’s intention regarding his ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ teaching, which provide a framework for a balanced approach to Mindfulness using the same four cognitive functions that we find in the Skandhas. While the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ appear to be focused outwardly on the objects of cognition and perception, they are actually themselves balanced as to their inward/outward focus – but it is helpful to understand them as growing out of the meditative, self-enquiry experience of resting as embodied Consciousness, and extending that enquiry out into an engagement with all aspects of life, inner and outer.
Mindfulness – Inner and Outer, Feminine and Masculine
So, we can think of the ‘Foundations’ as extending the notion of the embodiment of Consciousness outwards – first establishing it in the internal somatic realm (as defined by the skandhas, and also the brahmavihāras), and then extending out into the ‘outer’ realms of our life and work and communication (defined by the ‘Foundations’). Indeed a better translation of the word upasthāna (Skt), than ‘Foundations’, is probably ’embodiments’, or ‘establishments’. It was the Buddha’s wish that we should unfold the embodiment of Consciousness into every aspect of our lives. He was not merely teaching an introverted existential retreat from dukkha – from the inherently unsatisfactory nature of human existence. Rather, he was advocating an ever-expanding compassionate engagement with, and enquiry into, that reality – however unsatisfactory, or satisfactory, it may be. The possible expressions of the practice of Mindfulness, or of resting as Consciousness, are infinite.
So there are inner and outer dimensions of the mandala wisdom of self-enquiry and Mindfulness. This inclusion of inner and outer, or ‘internal’ and ‘external’, is specifically included in the Buddha’s descriptions of the skandhas, and of the each of the four ‘Foundations’ as we read them in the Pali Satipatthana Sutta, although unfortunately the meanings of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ in this context, are not defined. The terms ‘internal’ and ‘external’ can be taken as referring to the same internal and external dimensions of the cognitive-perceptual functions that Carl Jung conceptualised in his terms ‘Introversion’ and ‘Extraversion’ (more on these powerful concepts in future articles). What we can be sure of however, is that the Buddhist tradition, as it developed, came to symbolise the distinction between the internal self-enquiry dimension, and the external and compassionate activity dimension, as a unified feminine (wisdom) / masculine (compassion) polarity – as we see in the five ‘Buddha couples’ in the Buddhist mandalas.
There is an important principle here, that is highlighted more clearly in the context of the ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching, than it is in the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ framework, and this is the fact that the ultimate ‘inner’, is always Consciousness itself – and the complex somatic experience of embodied Consciousness. It is the consistent inclusion of the ’empty’ and spacious phenomenon of Consciousness in the cognitive-perceptual process of Mindfulness, that gives it its characteristic qualities – Balance, Humility, Equanimity and Emptiness, among many others. This, more than anything else is what is being symbolised, and communicated to us, in the yab-yum (father-mother) imagery of sexual union in Tibetan Buddhist iconography – the ‘divine marriage’ archetype. The ‘inner’, and ‘feminine’ self-enquiry of recognising and resting in the ’empty’ space of transpersonal Consciousness is inseparably unified with, and completely integrated with, the ‘outer’, and ‘masculine’ work of personal development and compassionate activity where we are continually falling into, and stepping back out of, the various illusory personal identifications in which we ourselves are felt to be the ‘doer’ of the activity.
Those who teach meditation and Mindfulness are failing their students if they fail to emphasise this ‘self-enquiry’ dimension – this examination of Consciousness, and familiarisation with its curious Emptiness of self characteristics. Paradoxically, we incorporate a ‘non-dual’ perspective into our Mindfulness practice, when we acknowledge that it involves a sort of ‘dual attention’ in which the ’empty’ and spacious nature of Consciousness is itself being acknowledged – not just the objects of Consciousness. This ‘dual attention’ provides a stepping stone to the place where we recognise objects and events as arising and taking place within the unity of the space of Consciousness in which we rest. The vajra is the symbol par excellence of this dual attention as a doorway into non-dual awareness, and Vajrayāna Buddhism is the vajra path.
Embodied Consciousness – the Five Wisdom Dākinīs
An appreciation of the archetypal feminine-masculine polarity in our engagement with self-enquiry and Mindfulness is of huge importance in the context of our current exploration of the Five Wisdoms mandala, and the mandala of the ‘five Buddha couples’. As I explained in the previous article (here), the Five Wisdoms are often regarded in Buddhist tradition as archetypally feminine (not female) and personified by female Buddhas, whereas the Mindful and compassionate activity that springs from the Five Wisdoms – skills, powers, personality development and ethical creativity – are regarded as archetypally masculine (not male) and therefore personified by male Buddhas.
In later articles, I shall be showing that this is something of an oversimplification. What is undeniably true however, if that the outer work of Mindful and compassionate activity that takes place as we engage with the world and with personality development, is better understood, and is more easily achieved, if we first take the wisdom path – the path of the inner life; the path of receptivity and integration; the path of ‘inner Mindfulness’ and of self-enquiry practice – which takes us into the territory of the archetypal feminine.
The archetypal feminine and archetypal masculine are difficult to talk about – we have to distinguish them from female and male. Our intention here, is not to reinforce gender stereotypes and heterosexual conformity, but simply to name the psychological realities at work in us all – whether we are biologically female, or biologically male. The effort of being clear with these distinctions is worth it. The five female Buddhas, or Prajñās, who personify the Five Wisdoms that arise when the Emptiness of each of the five skandhas is recognised, take us extremely directly to the somatic experience of embodied Consciousness – in a way that words often cannot. The five female Buddhas, who we have more likely seen represented as ‘consorts’ of the five male Buddhas, are also often depicted on their own, or in a mandala arrangement of five, in which they express their most essential nature, as five dākinīs – as five sky-dancing female deities – naked, and in ecstatic, receptive, abandon.
At first it may seem curious, and somewhat incongruous, to find these wild female figures appearing so vividly in the collective imagination of the Buddha’s predominantly monastic tradition, but when we abandon ourselves to the luminous space of Consciousness in the context of meditation practice, we can indeed experience the resonance of the vitality of these figures in our own subtle bodies.
The Five Wisdoms as Felt Experience
As we allow ourselves to fully ‘rest’ as Consciousness in meditation, and begin to familiarise ourselves with Emptiness (Dharmādhatu Wisdom), our hearts begin to recognise eternal truths and pour with the wise, compassionate, transpersonal, Life Energies of empathetic Consciousness (All-Accomplishing Wisdom); we begin to feel unconditionally loved, and held and valued, and fully receive that love (Discriminating Wisdom); we begin to expand into the guiltless and primordially pure mental clarity of our true nature (Mirror-Like Wisdom); and we begin to fully and appreciatively embrace the ambivalent mystery of being a spirit in a physical body, recognising our equal place in the family of humanity (Equalising Wisdom). These are some of the qualities and attitudes of the Five Wisdoms – the energies of the five dākinīs. And the dākinīs are not only visual symbolic figures in the imaginal space – we can feel these archetypal figures somatically in our bodies, living within and through us, when we are at our most free and most alive.
It would seem that the feminine mystery is the primary one – the starting point and the foundation. Just as western spiritual adepts came to see the Soul as feminine – and themselves, each one, women and men, as a potential bride of Christ – so too the Mahayana Buddhist tradition embraced the inner reality of the archetypal feminine. Carl Jung told us that the Soul – that inner domain in which the personal and the transpersonal relate, coincide and are resolved – is the Magnum Opus, the ‘great work’. Once the great innerwork of Mindfulness is begun, and transformation on the somatic level is progressing, the outer work of Mindfulness – personal development and creating a better world – becomes possible, as we build on that archetypal foundation provided by the wise and relational energies of the Five Wisdoms.
The Prajñās, appearing as the Five Wisdom Dākinīs, are images of freedom – images of primordial Life Energy – Life Energy freed from the constraints of egoic identification. When we – either women or men – begin to recognise the five dākinīs within, we gain a whole new appreciation of what the Five Wisdoms are, and what it means to see the ‘Emptiness of all five skandhas‘. The implications of this are far reaching. When we embrace and fully grasp this information, we have a whole new understanding not only of Consciousness, but of how our spirituality and our enjoyment of erotic polarity are not unrelated and opposite, as Christianity has generally taught us, but integrated and inseparable – expressions of the same archetype.
Sex, Gender, and Embodied Consciousness
I have started to explore the related questions of how our development of embodied Consciousness is always a gendered one, masculine or feminine, in several previous articles (here, here, here, and here). These are subtle and complex questions – and the unavoidable implication is that women and men usually need to practice meditation in a slightly different way. As we recognise Emptiness, we also see that sexual identity is in part a conceptual form and a decision – not just a biological given. In terms of the skandhas, sexual orientation is, like everything else: a mental construct (rūpa skandha); an evaluative decision based on felt knowing (saṃjñā skandha); and an energetic, or volitional, predisposition (saṃskāras skandha), and all of these are ultimately ’empty’. Our physical and sensory perception (vedanā skandha) is only a part of the picture – only part of the set of conditions that come together to create our experience of sex and gender.
Meditation is about familiarising ourselves with the way Consciousness is embodied in us, but it is also about a process of psychological and somatic integration, and a significant energetic dimension of this process is our integration of the archetypal energies of the feminine and masculine. To achieve this integration, we need to be able, both to recognise, and to embrace, the feminine and masculine within, and to recognise their ultimate Emptiness – which is to recognise their ultimately archetypal and non-personal nature.
The Inner Feminine in Women and Men
An awareness of the archetypal feminine is particularly important for men. While women have a natural affinity with the female Buddhas, male meditators may need to cultivate this familiarity – as part of the larger process of familiarising themselves with the Five Wisdoms as the dimensions of embodied Consciousness that emerge as the five skandhas are recognised as ’empty’. The great adepts and sages of Mahayana tradition are usually found to have been devoted to the female Buddhas and dākinīs – and there is very good reason for this.
The male Buddhas and Bodhisattvas carry the projection of our creative aspirations and our compassionate drive to build a better world. In the Bardo Thodol imagery this is symbolically represented in the idea that they ‘go before us’. In terms of our transformation process however, the female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, are perhaps even more important. They carry the projection of the energies within Consciousness that support us in establishing a correct understanding; in establishing a truly transformative meditation practice; and in allowing the death of our old egoic selves. The dākinīs have a strong association with spiritual death – the release of egoic identifications. They are associated with cremation grounds, with the preciousness and transitoriness of human existence, and with the practitioner’s urgent need to achieve full realisation in this life. The dākinīs can be terrifying – but for those who are intent on egoic death they are like deep friends and passionate lovers, and they powerfully accelerate our transformation.
Integration of Feminine and Masculine
In the eloquent imagery of the Bardo Thodol, the female Buddhas ‘go behind us’ – they are our rearguard and our support, and we cannot move forward without them. Male practitioners therefore have a particular challenge in relation to them. They need to take what may feel like ‘a step backwards’ to integrate what these feminine deities represent, but they cannot move forward any other way. The image of ‘behind us’ is itself symbolic. That which is ‘behind us’ is actually that which is all around us, but can only be integrated by receptivity – only integrated by opening receptively to that which is inherent in Consciousness, but is not available to the heroic masculine will of the egoic mind.
The Bodhisattva is a special type of being – one who understands this mystery. He or she progresses by a perfect balance of receptivity and effort – feminine and masculine. It is sometimes said that the Bodhisattva is the Buddhist hero archetype. While this is superficially true, it is more important in my view to highlight the fact that the Bodhisattva, representing as she/he does, the perfect balance of wisdom and compassion; feminine and masculine; and receptivity and determination, is an entirely different archetype – one that should actually be contrasted with the hero archetype, not identified with it. While the hero is an archetypal figure that will always dominate individual human lives and collective human cultures, we would do well to remember that the Hero is the archetype of the egoic – willful, one-sided, and unbalanced. The Bodhisattva on the other hand is associated with balance, wholeness, relaxation and effortlessness. The tradition even goes so far as to characterise the activities of the Bodhisattva as play (Skt: lila).
Embodying the Dākini Energies
It is the feminine, or receptive, attitude that allows us to rest as Consciousness, to overcome separation, and to connect with the greater whole. And it is the same feminine, or receptive principle that allows us to find a truly ethical basis for our lives. The masculine spiritual principle will lead us to express all manner of idealisms and aspirations, but there is a danger that this will never become fully grounded in a somatically embodied and relational way if we do not also honour the archetypally feminine spiritual forces that are symbolised by the dākinīs.
I shall be returning to these important themes in future articles. Until then, I would like to point the reader to my articles on the gendered nature of embodied Consciousness (two if them are here and here). In those articles my motivation was somewhat different. I was introducing the idea that female and male identity has its basis, not only in feminine and masculine archetypes, but in feminine and masculine orientations of the somatic energies in the fields of the body – very important information for the meditator. For example, in men the Volitional Body and the Heart Chakra are normally yin, or receptive; the Emotional Body and Solar Plexus Chakra have a yang, or expansive polarity; the Mental Body and Hara Chakra have a yin, in receptive polarity; and the Physical Body and Base Chakra have a yang, or expansive polarity.
In women, each of these subtle body polarities is experienced the other way round. We are all aware of the phenomena of the erotic polarity between men and women, and it will always be something of a mystery for most of us. Familiarity with the energetic anatomy of sex and gender in no way denies that mystery, but it can be a great help in life – especially in our meditation practice, but also in our sexual relationships
The Feminine Orientation of the Subtle Bodies and Chakras
In this article, I am going a step further, and my tentative invitation is that we should consider the possibility that men might learn to be comfortable with, and even embrace, at times, in the context of their meditation and self-enquiry practice, a feminine orientation of the somatic energies in the field of the body. If a man allows himself to experience, in a bodily felt way, the image of a female Buddha imagined ‘behind him’, as the Bardo Thodol describes, he will naturally find himself noticing a resonance, or reflection, of that feminine archetype within the energetic fields of his own body – and this is a powerful way of initiating a process of integration of these archetypal feminine energies.
[This question of the gender difference way in which Consciousness is embodied in women and men is a little complex and subtle and difficult to talk about. I aim to deal with it more comprehensively in my series on ‘The Ten Archetypal Buddhas of the Mandala’ (whose articles are listed here).]
You may notice this happening spontaneously when practicing the brahmavihāras cycle. The cultivation of Loving Kindness (metta / maitri) towards ourselves for example, is energetically receptive, and very different from the cultivation of Loving Kindness towards others, which is expansive. Those who practice the metta bhavana in five stages (1 – Self; 2 – Good Friend; 3 – Neutral Person; 4 – Enemy; 5 – World) are often not aware of this distinction, but in the context of the Buddha’s perspective on the emptiness, or non-personal nature of the person, the practice of loving ourselves is more fully and more sustainably understood as cultivating a receptive recognition of the great love (mahamaitri) that is inherent in the non-personal field of Consciousness.
[This attitude came to be symbolised in Buddhist tradition by the figure of Pandāravāsini, the female Buddha counterpart of Amitābha, the Buddha of Love. I have written in detail about this dual aspect of the brahmavihāras (self-other; internal-external; introverted-extroverted; receptive-expansive; feminine-masculine) – and also of the great importance of Pandāravāsini and the spiritual principle that she represents, in my articles on the ‘Ten Archetypal Buddhas of the Mandala’. The article on Pandāravāsini can be found here.]
Padmasambhava’s Meditation Advice
Every moment of Consciousness is a bardo, or moment of potential liberation – not just the ‘intermediate state’ between lives. Padmasambhava in the Bardo Thodol, in describing the bardo, invites us to recognise the female Buddha Akashadhatvishvari ‘going behind’ us, and the male Buddha Vairocana ‘going before’ us ‘on the Luminous Light-Path of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom’, he is inviting us into a profound integration process – one in which we release all personalisations, and in a very real and embodied sense to recognise that these archetypal figures are who we are, in essence. The person who sat down to meditate is released – entirely surrendered to the feminine and masculine energies of Consciousness.
It is important not to be literal about this. Our conceptualisations and imaginal projections of these polarity phenomena in the experience of embodied Consciousness are themselves found to be ’empty’. The appearance of the dākinīs is an example of the impersonal but compassionate nature of Consciousness – being archetypal figures, they are without self-hood in any ordinary sense, even though we can find ourselves concretely experiencing them ‘as if’ they were divine persons. Their compassionate psychological purpose is to provide a doorway into an entirely different, and non-egoic, way of being. The dākinīs do not need to be concretely imagined to be effecting their transformation in us. And they do not need to be worshiped on a shrine to be the objects of our devotion – in the imaginal world of the dākinīs, we learn to deeply appreciate, and hold in reverence, things that we only fleetingly perceive. We just come to know that our spiritual progress appears to be supported by the presence of primordial forces that are beyond ourselves, and feminine in character.
Meditating on the Five Wisdoms
When I do the brahmavihāras cycle (that I have talked about in many previous articles, including here, here, here and here), I generally use the masculine somatic orientation that I have described above – and this has also become the basis of my Mindfulness practice in the course of my day. When I meditate on the Five Wisdoms in the middle of the night however, the usual polarity of my subtle bodies and chakras may spontaneously reverse – into a feminine pattern, with a yang, or expansive polarity in the Volitional Body and Heart Chakra; a yin polarity in the Emotional Body and Solar Plexus Chakra; a yang polarity in the Mental Body and Hara Chakra; and a yin polarity in the Physical Body and Base Chakra.
I find this very natural, and sense, when this happens, that Consciousness is healing my relationship with the feminine dimensions of the psyche – both personal and collective. Not surprisingly – but important to note – the healing of those ‘feminine’ egoic energies that have previously been obstacles to the development of energetic coherence, is felt to be strongly supportive of the masculine somatic energy state and identity that I find myself in the course of my daily life, and in my relationship with my female partner.
This is subtle – and may only fully make sense in the context of meditation practice – and just in case I have not made this clear in previous articles, or in case you have not read them, I should perhaps attach a warning to these tentative suggestions. Please understand that this invitation only applies to the inner world – and to particular meditations on the Five Wisdoms – and only applies to our inner relationship with the energies of Consciousness, not to our personal and outer identity. And please understand that I have only been allowing this reversal of the somatic energies, into a feminine pattern, on the basis of several years of practicing meditation in a somatically masculine way. The aim here is to create clarity in regard to our sexual identity, not confusion, and this advice is directed primarily at heterosexual men. Homosexual men have their own path in this regard – a path that is probably a little easier in some ways, and possibly more difficult in others.
My hope is that, whatever their sexual orientation, my readers, especially the men, will gain a greater sense of authenticity, and a more spiritually rooted sense of identity by understanding the way Consciousness is embodied in a gendered way; by understanding the way that the archetypal feminine is always informing our experience of Consciousness; and by understanding that a feminine somatic orientation should be embraced in meditation practice – as a way of accessing somatic energies that support our development of the Five Wisdoms.
Mindfulness: Ethics, Balance and Humility
While the all-pervading field of Consciousness just exists absolutely, and can be experienced immediately at any time, without any need to cultivate it; the Buddha’s ’remembering’ practice, which the English speaking world calls Mindfulness, is a progressive, integrative, and developmental process, by which we endeavour to rest as Consciousness, and embody Consciousness to a increasing degree in an increasing number of areas of our lives.
Both the ‘Five Skandhas‘ and the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ are descriptions of the process by which a deeper embodiment of Consciousness takes place through four cognitive-perceptual dimensions, which are represented in the mandala as four Quadrants. When we recognise that the four ‘Foundations’ refer to the same four cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness as the Skandhas, it becomes clear that our recognition of ‘the Emptiness of the Skandhas‘ – the non-personal nature of these cognitive-perceptual components – is integral to Mindfulness practice, and that we cannot communicate the fullness of the Buddha’s intention regarding Mindfulness practice, without reference to Emptiness.
I have come to see the Buddha’s ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ teaching as an integral part of the Buddhist mandala wisdom. By arranging either the Skandhas and the ‘Foundations’ (or both) in a mandala, we start to recognise that these teachings are about balance and wholeness. Indeed, when we see the pairs of opposites that are the axes of such a mandala, we start to see a teaching that is specifically aimed at the establishment of a quality of soulful balance and humility – not just heroic self-awareness, such as can be developed one-sidedly and without any corresponding development of ethics, or empathy, or psychological and spiritual insight.
As a way of approaching the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ teaching, I would like, in this and a further articles in the near future, to address in detail the meaning of the Buddha’s ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching. It is unfortunately not well known that the ‘Five Skandhas‘ were a precursor to the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’, and that the wisdom contained in the later is not readily realised without an accurate understanding of the former. This fact makes it essential that we engage much more deeply with the Buddha’s ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching, in order to better grasp his teachings on Mindfulness. It is only by resting as Consciousness and recognising Emptiness, that we can be sure that the characteristics of ethics, balance, humility and wisdom will be the hallmarks of our progress.
A Lost Root of the Mandala Wisdom
The mandala wisdom that emerged in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition during the first millennium, had several roots in the teachings of the historical Buddha. Of these roots in earlier teachings, I have so far given most attention to the Four Brahmavihāras – Equaniminty, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion (see my summaries of that teaching framework here, here, here and here). Another major root of the Buddhist mandala wisdom is the Lokas, or Realms, which I have also introduced previously (here), but the most important of these roots, is the Buddha’s teaching on the ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘. This teaching is referred to very frequently in the Pali texts, but the detail that would bring coherence for the modern reader wishing to grasp the Buddha’s analysis, appears to have been mostly lost over the centuries.
This understandable loss of detail in the course of the four hundred year period between the Buddha’s passing and the creation of the written record that we now have in the language of Pali (Pali was unfortunately also not the Buddha’s own language), means that we have to do a fair amount of intellectual archeology to piece together the fragments of this aspect of the Buddha’s teachings into a meaningful whole. The skandhas teaching only becomes coherent in the light of the later Five Wisdoms framework and the associations with the lokas, or ‘Realms’, which we are shown in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead). Most of written records from the Indian Mahayana, which might have held more of this knowledge, were lost in the vast book burnings that destroyed the Buddhist libraries after the Moslem invasions. Luckily, enough of the Indian Mahayana Buddhist contribution to the mandala wisdom has been retained in the Tibetan tradition, and in other Buddhist traditions, for us to discern its essential elements.
The ideas and images in Tibetan texts like the Bardo Thodol show us that when we understand the Buddha’s ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas’ teaching correctly, we will find it to be a very powerful way into an appreciation of the non-dual state, and of great practical value for living well. Like the images of the Five Wisdom Dākinīs, they show us glimpses of the archetypal structure of mind, and so have a universal validity – a value for humanity that goes far beyond the culture and religion of Tibetan Buddhism. Properly understood, the ‘Five Skandhas‘ are a description of what may be called the Universal Mandala, which is the archetypal pattern that explains Consciousness, cognition and perception – and also explains the nature of creation and creativity.
The Universal Mandala
The Buddha’s ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching is certainly one of the most clearly articulated and important expressions of the Universal Mandala anywhere in human history, because it not only describes the four cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness, but asserts so clearly that they are non-personal, or archetypal, in nature. In my upcoming articles I will be engaging in a very thorough exploration of two very Buddhist themes – the skandhas and Mindfulness. I hope however, to be able to show that these themes are universal – that they can be of great value not only to students of Buddhism, but to non-Buddhists as well – especially perhaps, to the global community of students of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which I am part of, and would very much like to support.
We all share in humanity’s need to bring Mindfulness to our relationships and communication, in the midst of life’s interpersonal challenges – and to achieve that goal, we all need to engage in self-enquiry and self-empathetic healing. The very best way to establish this, in my view, is through regular meditation practice that is informed by the notion of ‘resting as Consciousness’: either meditating alone; or in a group; or with an empathetic companion to ‘hold space’ – or preferably in all three ways.
Above, I have taken the table that I used earlier in this article and added a row to show the corresponding ‘four components of NVC’ from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model, which I have talked about in several previous articles (here, here, here, and here). I hope that both Buddhists and NVC students alike will find these correspondences interesting. At the end of the day, all violence and unethical communication springs from our unconscious identification with egoic psychological parts. When we see the ‘four components’ of the NVC model arranged as a mandala alongside the corresponding ‘Foundations’ and skandhas, the parallels, and the underlying archetypal pattern of the four cognitive-perceptual functions, becomes very clear. The usefulness of both the Buddhist and NVC frameworks are greatly enhanced as we examine these parallels and recognise that both approaches share the goal of achieving that mental and emotional spaciousness and dis-identification which the Buddha called Emptiness.
To more readily achieve healing through dis-identification from fearful and judgemental psychological parts (the ‘Jackals’ of NVC tradition), we also need to recognise and see through our egoic personalisation of Consciousness and its four cognitive-perceptual components. In the Buddha’s terms, we need to start to recognise the five skandhas, and see the Emptiness of them. In Marshall Rosenberg’s terms, we need to use the principles of the NVC model as a four-fold self-awareness framework – like the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ framework – to bring ethics and compassion to our thinking and communication. All of these models take the same universal mandala of the four-fold cognitive-perceptual components as their archetypal template – so contemplation of them side-by-side is extremely illuminating.
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