This is Article No. 4 in the ‘Buddhism’ series.
This is the second of several articles on the ‘Five Skandhas‘ of ancient Indian tradition, which were the five ‘heaps’ of materials, or cognitive-perceptual components, from which the metaphorical ‘house of the self’ was believed to have been built. The mandala of the Five Wisdoms in Mahayana Buddhist tradition is based on the idea that each of the Five Wisdoms arises from recognising the Emptiness of one the skandhas. In the first two articles in this ‘Buddhism’ series (here and here), I have introduced the first of the Wisdoms – the Dharmadhātu Wisdom – and the notion of Emptiness (Skt: Shunyatā). I would like, in future, to provide more articles on the Dharmadhātu Wisdom, and several articles on each of the other Wisdoms, but I need first to provide an overview of the Buddha’s ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching, and this will include an outline of the Five Wisdoms.
I have been referring to the skandhas as ‘cognitive-perceptual components’, or as ‘cognitive-perceptual functions’. This term ‘cognitive-perceptual’ is borrowed from modern science – from medicine and psychology. I trained as an Occupational Therapist and worked in both physical rehabilitation services and mental health services for many years, so I have a very good understanding, and a deep appreciation, if not a sense of wonder, in regard to the biological dimensions of cognition and perception. For professionals in the fields of Neurology and Psychiatry, the two-part word ‘cognitive-perceptual’ refers in part to the different functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain – the left brain being, loosely speaking, more ‘cognitive’ and the right brain being, loosely speaking, more ‘perceptual’. What we are talking about in regard to the skandhas however, is something much deeper. We are talking about the underlying archetypal pattern, or eternal structure, by which Consciousness unfolds into manifestation – the mandala structure within Consciousness that caused the human brain to evolve in the spectacular way that it did.
Carl Jung – a Passionate Student of Tibetan Buddhism
To be clear, we need to define what we mean, in this context, by ‘cognitive-perceptual’. The Buddha’s approach is very much closer to that of Carl Jung and his ‘Four Functions of Consciousness’, than it is to the scientific materialism of modern medicine and psychology. As I have mentioned frequently in previous articles, our unconscious identification with the pre-Quantum-Physics worldview of scientific materialism is a major obstacle to our understanding of the Buddha’s non-duality teachings. Carl Jung was a student of both the early Quantum Physics (he had a long-standing personal friendship with Wolfgang Pauli), and of the universal spiritual psychology that underlies all the spiritual traditions – and one of his most valued sources in his pursuit of that knowledge, was Tibetan Buddhism. It is unfortunately little known that Jung was passionate about the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, and was reported by Marie-Louise Von Franz to have carried a translation of it with him whenever he was traveling. The contents of that book profoundly affected the development of his ideas, including his psychological typology framework, which has a mandala structure, and is essentially identical with the mandala of the Skandhas/Realms/Wisdoms that I am currently exploring in these articles.
The skandhas are difficult to understand. Many students of Buddhism regard them as an unsolvable riddle – one that will perhaps become clear when they gain Enlightenment in a future lifetime. People can study Buddhism with a passion all of their lives and still not find the skandhas understandable, or in any way useful in their meditation and Mindfulness practice. I was not content to admit defeat in this way, but found that, as a student of Buddhism, I have needed the help of Carl Jung to unravel the puzzle which is the Buddha’s ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching. That help has been available in Jung’s works ever since the 1920s, when he read the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) and committed his thoughts to writing for the benefit of the world. Unfortunately very few Buddhists have been open to this cross-pollination, fearing perhaps that some imagined purity of the ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching would be lost.
The Buddha, Carl Jung, and the Mandala Wisdom
While this reverent and protective impulse is understandable, it has been very unhelpful in this instance – especially when we acknowledge that the Buddha’s position in regard to the ‘Five Skandhas‘ appears to have been that the teaching had already lost its true meaning twenty-five centuries ago. Back then, the clarity of the Buddha’s direct teaching was able to cut through the confusion around the ‘Five Skandhas‘. Today however, in the absence of the Buddha, we need to draw on Padmasambhava’s beautiful symbolic summary of the mandala wisdom of Mahayana Buddhism, which we find in the Bardo Thodol. This leads us, in turn, to Carl Jung.
Carl Jung presented his mandala model of the psyche shortly after witnessing the horror of the First World War. It would not be overstating the case to say that Carl Jung saw in the Buddhist mandala wisdom, which I have been trying to communicate in these articles, a form of psychological knowledge that could save the world from the self-destructive effects of its collective Shadow. On both the individual and the collective level, human beings need an understanding of the mandala – the archetype of wholeness – if we are to become conscious of our areas of unconsciousness and avoid expressing the worst of our human potential.
Unconsciousness and the Shadow of Nuclear War
Repeating endlessly in our individual histories and in the collective history of humanity, we see horrific examples of how the ubiquitous complementarity of consciousness and unconsciousness within the egoic mind, leads inevitably to a dangerous dis-owning and exiling of our Shadow psychological parts – and then to a violent acting out of this unconsciousness. There is an urgent need for us to familiarise ourselves with the Shadow in ourselves and in our cultures, as the Buddha urged us so strongly to do, so that we can stop projecting that Shadow – and stop ‘scapegoating’ others with it. Until we do this, we will always destroy as much as we create – however ‘good’ our intentions may be.
Talking in the 1950s, during the Cold War, Jung said he saw the world as ‘hanging by a thin thread’ – that an almost complete destruction of the planet was almost inevitable if this psychological knowledge is not incorporated into our collective culture, and widely embraced. The development of our clever electronic technologies continue to mask our extreme lack of wisdom, while simultaneously increasing both our capacity for the mass-murder of millions at the touch of a button – and the likelihood of it happening.
The diagram below shows the correspondences between the Buddha’s ‘Five Skandhas‘ framework and the Five Wisdoms. Above each skandha in the diagram, I have shown the corresponding ‘cognitive-perceptual’ components from Carl Jung’s model.
Who Cognises? and Who Perceives?
In the context of our current enquiry into the Dharmadhātu Wisdom (the first article is here), there are also key questions that need to be kept in mind: ‘Who (or What) Cognises?’; and ‘Who (or What) Perceives?’. The Buddha’s position on this was very clear. As the foundational insight for his whole teaching framework, he asserted that, despite appearances, there is in fact, actually no separate, enduring self that is the ‘knower’ and ‘perceiver’ of our experience. While Consciousness is the only enduring reality in our transitory world, that ‘knower’ – Consciousness – is not personal, but universal. For the Buddha it was evident, that while there is knowing, judging, deciding, discrimination, perceiving, sensing, choosing, acting, etc. – and Consciousness is always present in all of these things – there is, nevertheless, no self that is the ‘doer’ of them. This is quite difficult for us to grasp intellectually, but it can be recognised in meditative self-enquiry.
In these articles on meditation, I have been endeavouring to demonstrate an approach to meditation that takes the attitude of self-enquiry into the nature of Consciousness as its starting point – and I believe this was the Buddha’s approach also. Even a small glimpse of what the Buddha meant by Emptiness, can fundamentally change our assumptions about what meditation is, and what Mindfulness is – and it will free us, and open up our practice. It is very supportive to know that the process of becoming conscious does not happen by the effort of a solitary personal will, but by the will of Consciousness itself – and Consciousness will find embodiment in us effortlessly, if we are willing to receive it, by resting, receptively, as Consciousness.
In the early articles of my ‘Meditation’ series, I spoke of the four brahmavihāras, and of our need to familiarise ourselves with these – recognising them as descriptions of the way in which Consciousness naturally finds embodiment in us when we rest as Consciousness. The four brahmavihāras are an ancient Indian self-enquiry framework that the historical Buddha made use of – a framework that, in combination with the ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching, formed the basis for the later Five Wisdoms mandala that we are now exploring. In my last article (here), I referred to the personification of the Five Wisdoms as five female Buddhas – a development within Mahayana Buddhism that highlights the value of ‘resting’ receptively as Consciousness. In the imagery of the dākinīs – the beautiful ‘sky-dancing’ figures that we see in Tibetan Buddhism – this attitude of ‘resting’, naturalness, and receptivity, is represented symbolically as a state of nakedness, feminine surrender, and wild abandon.
The Five Skandhas – both Perception and Creation
There is more that we need to say about the dual notion of ‘cognitive-perceptual’ in connection with the ‘Five Skandhas‘. There is a sense in which all of the skandhas involve both cognition and perception, but it will help us to take our analysis a little deeper, if we take a closer look at what we mean by each of these terms. There is also the philosophical challenge, when talking of perception in a spiritual context, of acknowledging that perception is always also creation. As Quantum Physics now appears to affirm, we create through the act of perception, and perception is always an act of creation. We are always creating our psychological reality, and even, it would seem, creating our physical reality. The objective and collective Consciousness and the material world, are ultimately impossible to separate, so our creation of reality is both personal and collective – the apparently personal dimension being always inseparably connected to the collective whole.
In order to go deeper in our analysis of the skandhas, it is helpful to acknowledge both the limits of ‘cognitive-perceptual’ as our conceptual label for them as a collective set of ‘components’ – while also acknowledging that this is probably the best terminology available to us in English. Confusingly – but also perhaps, usefully – the word ‘cognition’ itself has a dual meaning, being associated with both: (1) intellectual discernment, or conceptualisation, or mental discrimination; and (2) knowing in the absolute sense – not just awareness, but the all-pervading self-knowing awareness of Consciousness itself.
Consciousness, Cognition, and Perception
Further to this, we need to acknowledge that the skandhas are both an inner enquiry framework and an outer one, and the two-part word ‘cognitive-perceptual’, also serves to acknowledge this dual focus: (1) an external, or ‘-perceptual’ mode of recognition, directed towards the objects of perception in the inner and outer worlds; and (2) an internal, or ‘cognitive-’ mode of recognition, that is directed inwardly towards Consciousness itself – and towards the subtle, somatic experience of embodied Consciousness.
To help in our analysis, I would like to suggest that the skandhas can be thought of as containing three categories of components: (1) Consciousness; (2) two perceptual functions; and (3) two judging or discriminative functions. This becomes abundantly clear when they are arranged as a mandala, as they are in Tibetan tradition. The ‘perceptual’ functions form the north-south (green-yellow) axis of the mandala; the ‘judging’ or ‘deciding’ functions form the west-east (red-blue) axis; and Consciousness is the white centre.
The Vijñāna Skandha – Consciousness
So firstly, the skandhas do indeed include a fundamental ‘cognitive’ or ‘knowing’ element, which is vijñāna, or Consciousness – that which is assumed to be personal, but in fact is not. This component is represented by the white centre of the mandala (as shown in the diagram below).
The central place given to Consciousness in the ‘Five Skandhas‘ model that we see in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is often not seen when it is presented in other traditions. All Buddhist traditions give great importance to Mindfulness, so it would be logical for all traditions to place Consciousness in the centre of the ‘Five Skandhas‘ model. The primacy and centrality of Consciousness needs to be acknowledged – and the other four skandhas are best thought of as functions ‘of’ Consciousness.
Āskāshadhātvishvari, Vairocana, and the Dharmadhātu Wisdom
In Mahayana tradition, the recognition of the Emptiness of vijñāna, or Consciousness, came to be called the Dharmadhātu Wisdom, and this in turn came to be personified by the beautiful female Buddha Āskāshadhātvishvari, who I have talked about in a lot more detail previously (here). Her name means something like ‘Sovereign Lady of Infinite Space’ – although I prefer to think of ākāsha as the ‘primordial’ space. In the inspired non-traditional image above, Āskāshadhātvishvari is seen in her role as the partner of the central male Buddha of the mandala – Vairocana, ‘the Illuminator’ (more on him previously here).
Āskāshadhātvishvari and Vairocana are the central figures in the Dharma Family of deities in Tibetan Buddhism. Vairocana is normally depicted as white, but he is associated with the sun, so he is sometimes depicted as golden in colour. The artist has also chosen to show Āskāshadhātvishvari holding a moon symbol, thus highlighting her lunar, receptive, nature. Hence she is the infinite holding space of Consciousness, but is also that in us which rests receptively in the embrace of Consciousness. As conscious beings we are indeed like the beautiful moon – we do not shine by our own light, but only appear to, as we reflect the light of the sun of Consciousness.
The Skandhas and the Lokas, or Realms
In this article I will not be reflecting in detail on the association between the skandhas and the Lokas, or Realms, of Buddhist tradition, because this would make the article too long. It needs to be acknowledged however, that when we understand how our egoic identification with particular skandhas leads us to dwell in particular states of egoic dysfunction, we better understand both the individual psychology of the skandhas, and the collective psychology of the Realms. These associations are an extremely rich source of psychological insight. Traditionally, the stark imagery of the Realms also serves to give urgency to the Buddhist’s wish to recognise the Emptiness of the skandhas. As this important information needs another article of its own, it will have to suffice, for now, for me to say that identification with the vijñāna skandha leads us to the egoic states symbolised by the ‘Deva Realms’. I have spoken about the devas in a previous article here.
Clearly, there is a great deal to be said about the Emptiness of the vijñāna skandha, or Consciousness. Indeed, the guiding idea for this whole series of articles has been that of ‘resting as Consciousness’ – and implicit in that has been the idea that Consciousness is not the personal phenomena that we conventionally take it to be, but ’empty’ as the Buddha explained. I shall be returning to vijñāna, but now, having acknowledged its centrality, we shall move on to the second of the three categories within the skandhas – the two skandhas that can be described as ‘perceptual’ functions: vedanā, or sensation; and the saṃskāras, or volitional energies, which are perceived via Intuition.
The Vedanā Skandha – Sensation
The first, and most of obvious, of this pair of ‘perceptual’ skandhas, is vedanā, or ‘sensation’, which is associated with the Southern Quadrant of the mandala. Because the English language uses ‘feeling’ interchangeably with ‘sensation’, vedanā is often translated, incorrectly in my view, as ‘feeling’. I prefer to capitalise the word Sensation, because we need to remember that, in this context, we are referring to a much larger category of perception than is usually meant by the word ‘sensation’ in a medical or more general context. When the Buddha is talking about the Emptiness of the vedanā skandha, he is pointing us to the Emptiness of the totality of our bodily-felt experience – and that includes all the subtle bodies, not just the physical.
In the context of meditation and self-enquiry, it is especially important that vedanā is understood to include the whole range of our somatic experience, by which I mean any sensory or energetic experience, which registers in the body as a form of sensation – however subtle. We need to remember that the Buddha explained the skandhas in a way that subverted their original meaning as substantial components of a self, and showed that they should instead be seen only as dimensions of a cognitive-perceptual process, which together give rise to the appearance both of fixed and separate selves, and the appearance of substantial objects, even though all these things are actually ‘empty’.
Mindfulness of Vedanā (Sensation) – Our Entry Point into Samādhi
Vedanā has a very important place in Buddhist philosophy. Mindfulness of Vedanā, or Sensation, in this larger sense, was the second of the Buddha’s ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’. Recognising the Emptiness of vedanā, and releasing our identification with it, was seen as the key to our spiritual freedom, and as our point of entry into samādhi. While, there are many stages and levels within samādhi, we can think of it as the state of ’embodied Consciousness’, or ‘somatic integration’, which is the goal of meditation. And because samādhi states are healing states, in which egoic energies are progressively released, they can lead to Nirvana – provided that we recognise them as ’empty’. When we rest as Consciousness, and recognise vedanā as embodied Consciousness, and empty of self, we are freed from a whole chain of unconscious consequences that would otherwise reinforce our limiting self-identifications.
Students of Buddhism will be aware, that I am referring here to the fact that vedanā is one of the cycle of twelve ‘Causal Links’ (Skt: nidāna) in the Dependent Origination model (Skt: pratītyasamutpāda) of Buddhist tradition. This twelve-fold cycle provides us with yet another interesting parallel to the teaching of the ‘Five Skandhas‘. We find this model symbolised in the twelve images in the outer circle of the Buddhist ‘Wheel of Life’ (Skt: bhāvachakra). As with the ‘Five Skandhas‘, the twelve nidanas show how our failure to recognise the Emptiness of vedanā, leads to a cascade of evaluative perceptions (saṃjñā) and volitional impulses (saṃskāras) – conditions that further reinforce our bondage to the reactive and unconscious cycle of our conditioning, which Buddhist tradition characterises as a state of ‘Wandering’, or saṃsāra.
The Differentiation of Vedanā (Sensation)
Carl Jung used an important concept in relation to the functions of Consciousness: ‘differentiation’. While it is possible that a person could suddenly recognise the Emptiness of the vedanā skandha without any prior practice, it more likely to be a progressive process, involving a process of self-enquiry, Mindfulness, and differentiation. Differentiation, in this context, refers to a gradual expansion of our range of recognition of what vedanā, or Sensation, refers to – and to the progressive development of our ability to register the whole spectrum of bodily felt experience that is vedanā.
This differentiation of our capacity to recognise the full range of our experience, in all four of the surface bodies (which I have spoken of previously – here, here, here and here) is actually one of the keys to our capacity to enter samādhi consistently and easily – but we will be profoundly held back if we consciously or unconsciously subscribe to a narrow, self-limiting conceptualisation of what vedanā, or Sensation, is. Those who teach meditation need to take very great care not to validate the scientific materialism of modern Western culture in the way they teach – as this will almost certainly be an obstacle to their student’s recognition of the Emptiness of the vedanā skandha.
The ‘Resting as Consciousness’ approach to meditation that I have been advocating, can be thought of as taking a non-materialistic and phenomenological approach to vedanā – an approach which aspires to stay closer to that of the Buddha than we usually find in modern times. While some will say that the ancient Indian notions of a somatic anatomy – the subtle bodies and chakras – are unnecessary conceptualisations for the Westerner, I take the opposite view, which is that the Westerner desperately needs a way of removing the mental straight-jacket of scientific materialism – and I have found that the Tibetan Buddhist understandings that I have endeavoured to communicate in these articles, serve to achieve this very well. Far from adding unnecessary conceptualisation, they actually help to ‘ground’ some otherwise very abstract principles and aspirations – into our actual somatic experience.
Vedanā (Sensation) and the Somatic
We cannot talk about vedanā without including the notion of the somatic – the bodily felt energetic experience – but this is not easy to talk about. This whole area is plagued by both a vagueness and a tendency to talk too concretely about phenomena that inherently defy description – the attribution of the seven colours of the rainbow to the chakras being just one example. Jung, although he was keenly aware of the somatic, avoided trying to talk about it in his published writings, fearing for his reputation, and fearing that the somatic dimension is inherently too undefinable and too complex. I personally believe however, that any appearance of clarity that is gained by avoiding talking about the somatic, is in fact dishonest – and too much that is essential is lost.
The choice to avoid the somatic dimension is just not available to us if we are serious about meditation as a path to realisation of the ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘. If we are going to support our student’s recognition of the Emptiness of the vedanā skandha, we have to find a language and forms of conceptualisation that do not concretise, limit, and ultimately falsify, our bodily-felt experience – and that are able to bring about a differentiation of the Sensation function as we experience it in regard to the internal space of the body and the space around the body.
In my mandala-based, brahmavihāras-based, ‘Resting as Consciousness’-based approach to meditation, I have focused on the first four subtle bodies, finding it unnecessary to speculate about the three larger subtle bodies, and the three upper chakras. An experiential openness to just the first four subtle bodies, which I call the four ‘surface bodies’, is all we need to gain a sense of wholeness and embodiment in meditation, and to ground the mandala in our experience of the body. And the same four subtle bodies are also all we need, in my experience, to gain a sense of the four brahmavihāras as an ancient Indian description of our natural state as embodied Consciousness. Some of my previous writing on this can be found here and here.
Mindfulness of Breathing – a Vedanā (Sensation) Practice
The fact that the vedanā skandha, or Sensation, is so complex and multidimensional, has important implications. It means that our practice of Mindfulness of vedanā in the context of meditation needs ideally to be approached in a way that acknowledges this complexity. When we are practicing Mindfulness of Breathing for example, the invitation behind the practice is not simply to stay on the surface of our experience, with physical sensation as it would commonly be defined by scientific materialism, but rather to use our experience of the rhythm of the breath, and the natural scanning process that occurs as we ‘follow’ the breath, as a vehicle to take us deep into the complex and indefinable bodily-felt experience of the energetic anatomy of the body. Our purpose in the Mindfulness of Breathing practice should be to rest as Consciousness and recognise the Emptiness of the vedanā skandha – not to affirm its absolute concreteness. When I practice Mindfulness of Breathing, I use what I call the ‘Short Breath / Long Breath’ approach, which I have found to be a powerful way of addressing this issue. I shall provide more detail about this in future articles, but have introduced this method briefly in previous articles here, here, and here.
I, like the Tibetans, find the vedanā skandha to be most strongly associated with the Physical Body – which is the grossest of the four surface bodies, but also has a subtle, or energetic, dimension. The other three surface bodies are easier to see as energetic, insubstantial and ’empty’ – and they can more easily be seen as essentially non-personal energetic structures, whose purpose is the embodiment of Consciousness. If, in our approach to the vedanā skandha, we are experientially open to a recognition of the way in which we create egoic confusion in those other three bodies, through our personalising identifications, then we can, in turn, start to see the Physical Body in a whole new way also.
The invitation to see the vedanā skandha as empty, is easier to hear if we hear it as an invitation to see the Physical Body as just as ’empty’ as the other somatic bodies – just as impersonal and ephemeral, but of a somewhat denser character. While genetic pre-disposition plays a large part in its functioning, we do not have to be awakened to recognise the way every aspect of psychological character – both conscious and unconscious – eventually becomes patterned into the brain, the neuro-muscular system, the organs, and the glands. The practice of meditation reveals the physical body to be profoundly conditioned by the state of the other bodies, but to have an accumulation of patterning that is all its own. The sense of absolute self-hood that we attach to the physical body does however begin to release as we rest as Consciousness and enter samādhi regularly. It is as if our separateness is like a sort of egoic contamination that attaches to the physical body, but which can be released through resting as Consciousness – cleansed out of the system like a detox – and released much more easily if we are willing to see the other three surface bodies as ’empty’.
There is a great deal more that could be said about the vedanā dimension of the everyday experience of embodied Consciousness. In our everyday experience as a ‘person’, interacting with other ‘persons’, the physical body, however keenly we are aware of its mortality, and its being just the sum of its innumerable physiological processes, does not in general feel ’empty’ at all. This, unfortunately, is one of the reasons that students of the Buddha’s teachings usually put the ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas’ teaching in the too hard basket – and fail to approach the wisdom that it contains. It is important therefore, to relax in regard to the physical body – accepting that, while we are existing in a physical body, a certain sort of modest personhood is always going to attach to it, even when we start to see the Emptiness of the other subtle bodies, and recognise that the forces that animate our lives are universal. While all the subtle bodies are vehicles for the embodiment of Consciousness, I find the word Embodiment to be particularly apt and descriptive in relation to the Physical Body. In his Mindfulness of Vedanā practice, the Buddha is inviting us to fully inhabit the body – to live gently, modestly, and appreciatively, in our physical bodies, and with a sensitivity that allows us to register all the subtle non-personal energies that gather around it.
Māmakī, Ratnasambhava, and the Equalising Wisdom
In the Mahayana period, the Buddhist tradition identified the recognition of the Emptiness of the vedanā skandha as the Equalising Wisdom, and this came to be personified by the beautiful female Buddha Mamaki, whose name means ‘Mine-Maker’. Associated with the yellow Southern Quadrant, she and her partner, the male Buddha Ratnasambhava, are the central figures in the Ratna Family of deities in Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
So the vedanā skandha – that most physical dimension of our embodiment, which normally serves as the most powerful reinforcer of our separateness and difference, is transformed when we recognise its Emptiness, into a recognition of the primordial equality of Consciousness, which pervades the universe absolutely evenly. And with this comes Appreciative Joy, and a mysterious and generous solidarity with all living things. I shall be returning to the vedanā skandha and the Equalising Wisdom in future articles, and will be providing more detail on all of the skandhas and Wisdoms that I am outlining briefly here. The fact that the vedanā skandha is associated with the Human Realm, means that the Equalising Wisdom and its associated archetypes and symbols have much to teach us. I have also touched on some of these details previously here, here and here.
The Samskāras Skandha – the ‘Volitional Energies’
Next we come to the second skandha in the pair of skandhas that we should think of as ‘perceptual’ functions. These are the saṃskāras, or ‘volitional energies’. In the original ancient Indian understanding, the saṃskāras were the energies of the personal will, which drive the process of karma. When the Buddha is talking about the ‘Emptiness of the saṃskāras skandha‘ however, he is presenting a much more sophisticated understanding. For the Buddha, the appearance of a personal will, and of our apparent subjection to the law of karma, was part of the larger interplay of forces, dynamics and processes that create both our subjective experience and our apparently objective reality – and all of it is impersonal.
While the Buddha would agree that this range of factors and processes include volitional energies that arise from our personalising identifications with psychological parts, he would say that these energies are not in themselves personal. So when the Buddha says that the saṃskāras skandha is ’empty’, he was advocating this much wider, more comprehensive, and more subtle way of seeing the forces that shape our reality. This second mode of perception then, is the way of seeing that was called ‘Intuition’ in the English translations of the work of Carl Jung. I use this word in its capitalised form to make it absolutely clear that I wish the word to carry the meaning attributed to it by Jung. In general discourse, ‘intuition’ is a word that means all manner of things that are very different from the concept that we need it to refer to here.
Intuition-Volition – Perception and Creation
Carl Jung used the word Intuition to describe the way we either inwardly perceive volitional energies, or externally perceive patterns, processes, possibilities, social dynamics, and trends. While this conceptual label, Intuition, is understandable – since a single word was required – I often use Intuition-Volition in place of it. The idea that ‘volitional energies’ are objects of an intuitive mode of perception, that is at the same time creating our perceived reality, is of great importance – especially when talking about a cognitive-perceptual model in which the perception of, and the creation of, our reality, are seen as inseparable.
So, while the saṃskāras are the volitional energies that both drive activity in the world, and give volitional momentum to our identifications and our entanglement in past psychological conditioning, there is a mode of perception, which we can call Intuition-Volition, that is the faculty by which we both observe these dynamics in the world, and observe these energetic phenomena within ourselves.
The creation aspect of Intuition-Volition is more difficult to see. As we become psychologically conscious, most of us become painfully aware that we are continuously creating what we fear in our relationships and communities, but it is another thing entirely to become so conscious of the volitional energies at work in us that we can release them before we act them out, or can transform them before others act them out for us. I have begun to address this in a previous post (here) by utilising the ‘Life Energy of Needs’ approach to Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model, and shall be returning to this theme in future.
Intuition-Volition and the Evolution of Life-Serving Culture
There is a hugely significant external, collective, and social dimension to this creation process that I would also like to address in much more detail in future. We create our communities and societies through acts of cultural expression – either life-serving activities, or life-alienating activities – and we only have the power to shape our culture positively if we have sufficiently differentiated Intuition-Volition, and can first clearly observe and identify all the forces that are at work, both creatively and destructively, in society and culture.
The Buddha showed a keen awareness of how the volitional energies of the egoic mind can find negative expression in the collective – in his teachings of the Six Realms, which I have mentioned above. As the Buddhist tradition developed, it also became increasingly keenly aware of the positive and creative aspects of what may be called ‘Dharma culture’ – especially in the Mahayana, where Buddhist values and principles were richly expressed in art, poetry, sculpture, drama, story, myth-making, and in civic society. The differentiation of the faculty of Intuition-Volition gives us the ability to correctly identify and symbolise the archetypal forces that drive the evolution of life-serving culture.
Emptiness of the Samskāras Skandha / Mindfulness of Dharmas
In the Buddha’s ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ framework, which was developed out of his ‘Five Skandhas’ teaching, the ‘Foundation’ that corresponds to the ‘Emptiness of the saṃskāras skandha‘ is ‘Mindfulness of Dharmas‘. I would like to talk more about this in future articles, but hopefully it will suffice to say at this stage, that it is clear that the Buddha was advising his students to use the spiritual truths (Dharmas) that he was providing for them, as a framework for understanding the patterns, processes and dynamics that they were experiencing both in themselves and in their world – while acknowledging that all Dharmas (not just the conceptual labels that we place on them) are ultimately ’empty’, and can only ever be pointers to experiences that are also ’empty’, or impersonal.
I have spoken previously about how the core principles of the wisdom teachings have a mysterious volitional dimension – a quality of energy or spiritual power. It is as if when we name the eternal truths – the archetypal principles that are built into the nature of Consciousness, and upon which the universe is founded – we can gain access to powerful transformational forces. Being transpersonal and inherently empty of self, these energies have the power to liberate us. Plato spoke of the ‘Virtues’ and ‘the Good’ as having this eternal quality, but a more accessible expression of this principle is in the ‘Life Energy of Needs’ approach to Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model mentioned above – in which we are invited to recognise that Needs arise from volitional energies (saṃskāras) that are ultimately not personal, but universal – or ’empty’ as the Buddha would say.
For me the Dharma is itself an archetype. It is that body of truth – from any spiritual tradition, or none – that supports human evolution towards truth, justice, freedom, and true fulfillment. Developing a ‘Needs-literacy’ and an experiential familiarity with Needs as ‘Life Energies’ in ourselves and others, is clearly an important aspect of what the Buddha meant by ‘Mindfulness of Dharmas‘, and recognising the ’empty’, non-personal nature of the saṃskāras skandha. I have spoken a little about this in a previous article (here) and shall be returning to this theme in future. It is an approach that is associated with the work of NVC teacher Robert Gonzalez, but it is reflected in the work of Eugene Gendlin, Robert Fritz, and others. Emerging entirely independently of the Buddhist tradition, this way of seeing Rosenberg’s Universal Human Needs as volitional energies that are ultimately ’empty’ of self, is profoundly resonant with the Buddha’s invitation to recognise the Emptiness of the saṃskāras skandha.
The Differentiation of the Intuition function (Samskāras Skandha)
Intuition is essentially the recognition of patterns and dynamics – and this includes our ability to recognise archetypal psychological principles, which we can call Dharmas, and the universal human motivations, which the skandhas model of ancient Indian tradition called the saṃskāras. The framework of spiritual truths that we call the Dharma, allows us to relate to the saṃskāras in a new way over time – so that we are no longer unconscious, and we are no longer identified. The purpose of the Dharma, the Buddha seems to be saying, is to provide a framework so that we can differentiate our Intuition to the point where it becomes the capacity by which we recognise the Emptiness of the saṃskāras skandha and can therefore avoid conflict and begin to function at a very much higher level of creativity and effectiveness.
I have a deep love of the mandala wisdom of Mahayana Buddhism precisely because it provides such a powerful Dharma framework to support the differentiation of Intuition-Volition. I find it to be a comprehensive, coherent and accessible spiritual model – and believe that such an effective guide to the practice of meditation, and such a clear framework for self-knowledge, needs to be more widely known and utilised. For me, it provides a description of reality that has great energetic power, because it shows that all human motivations have their roots in a benign and universal reality. I chose ‘Mandala of Love’ to be the name of my website as a reference to the way the mandalas of Mahayana Buddhism express the idea that the evolutionary energies of Wisdom and Compassion are built into the nature of Consciousness – and into the fabric of the universe – in a mysterious four-fold / five-fold way that can be symbolised as a mandala.
The table below is an expanded version of the one that I used in my previous post. I include it here to reinforce our understanding of how the Buddha took the ancient Indian skandhas, and used them as a basis for his four-fold ‘Foundations of Mindfulness’ framework. He also appears to have taken the skandhas as his starting point for yet another formulation – the ‘Five Spiritual Faculties’ (Skt: Indriyas) – which I have yet to talk about. I have included the four brahmavihāras also – not a model that the Buddha invented, but an ancient Indian one that he adopted and made his own. The Five Wisdoms are a later development – an attempt perhaps to organise and clarify these various previous teachings. When we see these teachings arranged in a table together, it seems reasonable to assume that the Buddha, like Carl Jung (whose ‘Functions of Consciousness’ I have included for comparison), would have recognised the underlying universal structure that made these four-fold / five-fold frameworks inherently comprehensive.
When we learn to rest as Consciousness and observe the dynamics, which ancient Indian tradition called the saṃskāras, recognising them as empty and impersonal, we will begin to experience a profound clarification of our own motivation, and a profound clarification of our understanding of the motivations of others. This intuitive-volitional mode of perception-creation is, of course, of paramount importance in the Buddhist tradition – in fact it is the compassionate perception from which the activity of Compassion springs.
Samaya Tārā, Amoghasiddhi, and the All-Accomplishing Wisdom
This impersonal and compassionate way of seeing human motivation, came to be called in Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the All-Accomplishing Wisdom, and it was personified by the beautiful female Buddha Samaya Tārā, or Green Tārā – sometimes called Aryatara, or Noble Tara. Samaya is a powerful word. It refers to Tara’s vow, or promise, or complete commitment, to the protection and support of all beings on their inner journey – and perhaps their outer journey also. The compassionate motivation of the Bodhisattva is no longer a personal choice, but is like an unbreakable vow – it is part of their nature, and the archetypes of Empathy and Compassion shape their perceptions and their actions. I have talked previously (here) about Tara and what she represents, and will be returning to her again. Associated with the green Northern Quadrant, she and her male Buddha partner Amoghasiddhi, are the central figures of the Karma Family of deities in Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Identification with the saṃskāras skandha leads to the collective psychology of the Asura Realm, which continues to profoundly shape human society, as it has done throughout history. The Asura archetype is the antithesis of Compassion and of the All-Accomplishing Wisdom. I have written previously (here) about the Asuras, but I shall be returning to this important theme in future articles.
In the mandala, vedanā, or ‘sensation’; and saṃskāras, or ‘volitional energies’, are represented by the yellow Southern Quadrant and green Northern Quadrant respectively. While we should not think of them in absolutely hierarchical terms, it is helpful to regard the relationship of vedanā and the saṃskāras, as a vertical integration of gross and subtle, material and energetic. I therefore prefer to represent these two as the vertical axis of the mandala, as in the Chinese Five Buddha mandala above, and as in Western convention, although the more common Tibetan convention represents south and north at the left and right. I shall explain this preference in more detail in an upcoming article, which deals with the Indian-Himalayan element symbolism of the skandhas.
When we see these two aspects of perception (vedanā, or sensation; and the saṃskāras, volitional energies), as the two ends of a single ‘axis’ of the mandala, as the Tibetans do, our conceptual grasp on them is greatly enhanced. The Buddha makes it very clear that vedanā and the saṃskāras are not distinct entities – none of the skandhas are. We would do better to think of vedanā and the saṃskāras as two ends of a spectrum of perceptual experience, as Carl Jung did – the vedanā end (south) being that which is more readily available to Sensation, and the saṃskāras end (north) being more available to Intuition. Vedanā (Sensation) needs to be understood to include the sensation associated with the subtle bodies, and saṃskāras (Intuition-Volition) needs to be understood as including the instinctual motivations that arise from our biological nature. By understanding these two perceptual functions in a more conceptually subtle way, as a spectrum – with biological and instinctual processes at one end, and energetic and archetypal processes at the other – we are more able to recognise them both as ’empty’, and to release our identification with all of it.
The Rūpa Skandha – Conceptual Form
Now we come to the third of the three skandha categories that I mentioned above – the second pair of components – which are better understood as discriminatory, decision-making, or discernment functions. This pair are rūpa, or conceptual form; and saṃjñā, which I prefer to translate as ‘evaluative discrimination’. These are the pair of functions by which we recognise, discriminate, think, and make decisions. Jung called them the two ‘Judging’ functions. There is much that needs to be said, and I shall be returning to this in future articles, about how rūpa and saṃjñā relate to each other – in negative ways when we are in unconscious identification with them, and in positive ways when we are resting as Consciousness.
The rūpa skandha (conceptual form) is associated with the blue Eastern Quadrant. Although rūpa is most frequently translated as ‘form’, I prefer to add ‘conceptual’ to make it clear that rūpa refers, at least internally, to Thinking – to abstract, conceptual, and geometrical form, rather than to the sensory experience of the body. There is a subtle distinction here that is very important. The human body has a dimension of ‘form’, but that is not what distinguishes it. It is incorrect therefore to narrowly equate the body with any one of the skandhas, but the physical, sensory, flesh-and-blood body is much better associated with the vedanā skandha.
A confusion in regard to rūpa has however arisen, where rūpa is usually directly translated as ‘the body’, or ‘body’. I believe this is a misrepresentation of the Buddha’s intention. While the ‘form’ of the body is indeed an aspect of the rūpa skandha, we would do well to think of rūpa as relating only to our sense of the ‘form’ of the body; the body’s position in space; and our sense of the body in movement and stillness – not to its physical and sensory reality, which is associated with the vedanā skandha. We have to remember once again that the Buddha is deconstructing the earlier skandhas teaching – not affirming it. His intent is precisely opposite to the usual literalistic and materialistic interpretation of the skandhas that we often see. He was saying that the internal sense of the ‘form’ of the body is ’empty’ – that it is an appearance that has been constructed and concretised by the mind, and that the rūpa dimension of our collective external reality is the same.
Emptiness of the Rūpa Skandha / Mindfulness of the Body (Kaya)
In the nervous system our sense of the form of the body is mediated by the proprioceptive organs in the joints and muscles; the vestibular system in the inner ear; and the cerebellum in the base of the brain. While these ‘senses’ are missed off the list of the ‘five senses’ – even in modern times – this ‘body position sense’ is in fact one of the first senses to develop, and is closely connected to our most fundamental recognition of Being, existence, and apparent self-hood. If we wish to gain the deeper and much more expanded understanding of the skandhas that the Buddha was advocating, it is very helpful for us to conceptually separate this sense of rūpa as ‘body position in space’ from vedanā, which is the whole complex of bodily-felt sensations that arise continuously within the field of the body. The common failure to make this distinction is one of the main confusions that has undermined the usefulness of the ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching as a self-enquiry framework in the English speaking world.
The Buddha urged his students to remember (Pali: sati; Sanskrit: smrti) to acknowledge their experience of Consciousness, and to do this in the midst of life, especially in the simple daily activities of sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. This practice of resting as Consciousness while attending to the form of the body in space, was the first of his four ‘Foundations of Mindfulness’, and is traditionally called ‘Mindfulness of Kaya‘. ‘Mindfulness of Kaya‘, or ‘Mindfulness of the Form of the Body’, is essentially Mindfulness of the rūpa skandha as it is experienced in the stillness and movement of the body in space. The diagram below shows the correspondences between the ‘Five Skandhas‘ and the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’, when both models are arranged as a mandala.
The Rūpa Skandha – Bodily Form and Conceptual Form (Thinking)
The frequent recognition of the simplest essence of rūpa in this way, was used by the Buddhas’s students as a way of connecting to that primary sense of Being that arises as we attend to body position in space. When we do the practice in its purest form, as in the ‘Just Sitting’ approach to Zazen, or in a Tai Chi form practice, we do not get involved in the sensory content of the experience. We just experience the body as form – as rūpa, and as ’empty’. Many find these practices to be very powerful for stilling the Thinking aspect of the mind, but something even more remarkable will often happen also. We begin to notice that the Thinking mind does not matter at all, and that it is not capable of disturbing our meditation – we recognise that the ultimate nature of mind as Consciousness, is primordially pure, and can never be perturbed by its contents.
So the various forms of ‘Mindfulness of Kaya‘ practice, or awareness of the rūpa skandha, allow us to experience the Thinking mind with a new attitude – with Equanimity. To begin to release our identification with the Thinking mind, and to release our concern about it, is the beginning of our realisation of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha. It is not always acknowledged that the importance and popularity of the Mindfulness of Rūpa / Mindfulness of Kaya (bodily form) practices, is because they serve as our most accessible point of entry into a realisation of Emptiness.
The ultimate goal of ‘Mindfulness of Kaya‘ however, is to see the Emptiness not only of rūpa as bodily form, but rūpa as conceptual form – as Thinking. These two aspects of rūpa – bodily form and conceptual form (Thinking) – are very closely related. I learnt this many years ago, in my twenties, when I was a Tai Chi practitioner. Tai Chi is essentially a very intense Mindfulness of rūpa / Kaya practice, and I found that, every morning, if I meditated after doing my Tai Chi Form three times through, I could consistently sit like a mountain, and no thought could disturb the sense of Being that the practice created. There was no identification with the thoughts that arose. Without recognising it as such, I was resting as Consciousness, and glimpsing the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha.
This sort of experience is actually very common among meditators, and of enormous significance if we view it as an experience of the Emptiness of rūpa, and of resting as Consciousness. Unfortunately, it is usually just dismissed as a ‘meditation experience’, but because this mirror-like imperturbability is actually an experience of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, we should see it as the beginning of Wisdom, and as our starting point for recognising the Emptiness of the other skandhas.
Differentiation of the Thinking function (Rūpa Skandha)
All thinking is rūpa – conceptual form – and it dominates our cognitive-perceptual experience until we can begin to have moments of Equanimity in which we release our identification with it, and recognise it as ’empty’. Such moments can come suddenly, but as with the other skandhas, the process by which the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha is realised, is likely to be gradual, and can be characterised as a process of differentiation.
Differentiation of the Thinking function means learning to think with an implicit awareness that words and concepts are ’empty’ – but for the always changing meanings that are attached to them in different contexts. To be aware that words are only provisional and unsatisfactory symbols for ultimately unsatisfactory concepts, is only the first layer of Emptiness in regard to the rūpa skandha. Beyond that, is the awareness that that which the words and concepts are pointing to, is itself inherently ’empty’. The Buddha told us that the Dharma is only ‘a finger pointing at the moon’. The implication of this statement was that wisdom is to be found, not in the words, but in the ultimately indescribable experience that the words are pointing to.
The implication of these understandings is huge. The Buddha was saying that the conceptual and cultural forms that spiritual teachings take, are not, in themselves, sacred. They are only sacred to the extent that they point effectively to transcendental wisdom and transformation – which means, paradoxically, that they are most sacred when we recognise them as ’empty’ in both content and form. The implication of this is that we do not preserve the great wisdom teachings of the Buddhist tradition by placing them, metaphorically speaking, in a glass box in a museum, but by recognising them as existing eternally in the flow of human cultures – appearing, disappearing, and reappearing; connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting. To preserve these teachings we must engage with them and connect with them and use them. It is not disrespectful to the cultural forms that Buddhism has taken in the past, to take the teachings out of their original culture and connect them with our own. In fact, the greatest honour we can pay to these teachings is to make them our own in this way – and to use them for our liberation and the liberation of others.
Buddhalocanā, Vajrasattva-Akshobhya, and the Mirror-Like Wisdom
In Mahayana tradition, the mental clarity and Equanimity that arises when the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha is recognised, came to be called the Mirror-Like Wisdom, and this Wisdom was personified by the female figure of Buddhalocanā – (pronounced Buddha-lo-cha-nar) which means ‘She of the Buddha Eye’. Buddhalocanā and her male Buddha partner Vajrasattva-Akshobhya are the central figures of the Vajra Family of deities in Tibetan Buddhism, which is associated with the blue Eastern Quadrant. Identification with the rūpa skandha leads us to the egoic states symbolised by the ‘Hell Realms’ of Buddhist tradition. There is a previous article about this here, but I shall be returning to reflect on this important connection in a future article.
I shall provide some explanation of all these archetypal figures and their associated symbolic imagery in future articles. I have already talked about the related themes of Equanimity, Thinking, and Objectivity, in a previous series of articles – here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – and will be reflecting further on these themes, and about the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, in future articles.
One of the best sources of reflection on the Mirror-Like Wisdom, and on the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, is the ‘Platform Sutra’, which is the autobiography of the wonderful sixth century figure of Hui Neng (638—713). Sometimes called Wei Lang, Hui Neng was the sixth Enlightened patriarch of the medieval Chinese Chan Buddhist tradition, which later became Zen after it spread to Japan. This a very beautiful story, and one that has always fascinated me. Some years ago I wrote a re-telling of the key parts of that story, which I have published on this website (here).
The Saṃjñā Skandha – Evaluative Discrimination
The red Western Quadrant of the mandala is associated with the saṃjñā skandha, which I prefer to translate as ‘evaluative discrimination’ – although the most commonly used translation is ‘perception’. Saṃjñā is the second of the pair of cognitive-perceptual functions by which we recognise, discriminate, and make decisions, and which Carl Jung called the ‘Judging’ functions.
It is particularly confusing to our understanding of the skandhas in the English speaking world, that vedanā, should often be translated as ‘feeling’, because ‘feeling’ – not ‘perception’ – is a word that we should associate with the saṃjñā skandha. ‘Perception’ is simply not a good choice of words for saṃjñā. Not only are all the skandhas collectively a description of the components of the perceptual process, but ‘perception’ is more correctly associated with the vedanā skandha and the saṃskāras skandha as I have explained above. It is easy to see however, how the confusion has arisen. Saṃjñā is ‘perception’ only because it is the more subjective aspect of our judgement. Saṃjñā is an evaluative form of recognition and discrimination, which is not based on the supposed objectivity of mental logic and conceptualisation – as rūpa is – but on the mind’s ability to accumulate experience and to use conscious and unconscious memory as a resource for future discernment.
While saṃjñā is a form of discrimination that is subjective – ‘only a perception’ we could say, or ‘only a feeling’ – it is a faculty that is of at least equal importance to reason, if not greater, as a component in our judgments and decision-making. We actually use our Feeling function – our ‘evaluative discrimination’ – to make most of our decisions. More often than not, even when we think we are using reason to make rational choices, we are actually making evaluative choices – drawing on our history of similar previous experiences, and making decisions from the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, feeling responses, which arise as we consider our options.
A Critical New Understanding of the Nature of Mind
Once again, we have to remember that saṃjñā was not the Buddha’s choice of terminology. In his ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching he was looking at the previously established ancient Indian teaching and taking it apart, exposing its errors, its imprecision, its superficiality, and its failure to communicate the non-personal nature of Consciousness. Given that the Buddha’s analysis of the previous skandhas teaching was such a radical and fundamentally critical one, it is very sad indeed that the ‘Five Skandhas‘ should be taught to students of Buddhism without reference to this fact; without reference to Emptiness; and without reference to the centuries of meditation and scholarship that led to the sophisticated mandala wisdom of Mahayana Buddhism, which took the Buddha’s analysis of the skandhas as its starting point. In order for us to grasp the Buddha’s ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching, we need to see that he was not just ‘teaching the Five Skandhas‘ but using the ‘Five Skandhas‘ as a vehicle – as a critical ‘starting point’ from which to take his students much deeper in their understanding of the nature of mind.
In his analysis of saṃjñā, it seems clear to me that the Buddha was asking his students to become fully conscious of the subtle evaluative aspect of the mind that modern psychology calls Feeling. He was inviting us to rest as Consciousness, to see the ultimately ’empty’ and impersonal nature of this ‘evaluative discrimination’, or Feeling function of the mind – and to release our unconscious identification with it. When he expanded upon his teachings on the ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas’, and used this as the basis of his ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ framework, the enquiry into the nature of saṃjñā finds expression as ‘Mindfulness of Citta‘ – Citta meaning Mind, or more specifically the ‘felt-quality’, or ‘feeling tone’, of mental experience, by which we make our evaluative judgments.
Differentiation of the Feeling Function (Saṃjñā Skandha)
Relative to ancient India, our minds in the modern Western world may be more likely to be dominated by Thinking, and may have psychological tendencies that deny or devalue Feeling, but nevertheless, these teachings speak to us across the centuries. To see the Emptiness of the saṃjñā skandha, is to recognise that, paradoxically, this subtle and subjective mode of ‘evaluative discrimination’, is not personal, and that we create much confusion and harm, for ourselves and others, when we are identified with it.
As modern students of the Buddha’s teachings, we need to be clear that the Buddha was not simply urging ‘detachment’, in the sense of disconnection from our evaluative function – indeed it is a common and unhelpful tendency in regard to the saṃjñā skandha that we negatively evaluate aspects of Feeling and then suppress or deny them. On the contrary, the Buddha was saying that in order to allow our Feeling life to differentiate, and develop into Wisdom, we should rest as Consciousness and fully experience, as empty of self, all the infinite variety of ‘felt qualities’, or ‘feeling tones’, or ‘felt-senses’, or ‘image-senses’, that are the manifestations of the saṃjñā skandha – including those aspects of Feeling that we would rather not feel. The development of this unconditional inclusiveness and acceptance in regard to Feeling, is the characteristic feature of the differentiation of the Feeling function – not the ability to control Feeling, or to only have positive feelings.
Loving Kindness (Mettā) – Acceptance, Contentment, Unconditional Presence
It is difficult to be unconditionally present with the saṃjñā skandha, if we have no familiarity with resting as Consciousness. Indeed resting as Consciousness has a particular healing power in relationship to Feeling because, whereas Feeling is very strongly evaluative and conditional, Consciousness is unconditional – it evaluates with an unconditional attitude. This is the attitude of Consciousness that Buddhist tradition calls (in Pali) mettā, or Loving Kindness. Loving Kindness is one of four brahmavihāras – the four ethical and relational ‘attitudes of Consciousness’ mentioned previously in this article. While I believe the brahmavihāras are best understood and practiced as a set of four, the Buddha appears to have given particular importance to Loving Kindness. We develop differentiation in the Feeling function by learning to be unconditionally present with Feeling, in ourselves and in others – only when we dis-identify from it, can Feeling become an effective mode of discrimination, of evaluation, and of aesthetic judgement.
I have talked a lot in previous articles about how, when we rest as Consciousness, we may become aware of these archetypal attitudes of Consciousness, which ancient Indian tradition called the brahmavihāras: Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion (more on these here, here, here, and here). These are ethical and relational attitudes in the interpersonal realm, and in the inner realm they are aspects of embodied Consciousness and very closely related to the Wisdoms. The correspondences between the ‘Five Skandhas‘, the Five Wisdoms, and the brahmavihāras are shown in the table below.
The Buddha’s ‘Confession’ Dyads, and Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’
The complete allowing of felt-experience without falling into identification with psychological parts, is a great path of healing, and while we may be able to learn to do this in the context of our meditation practice, we do not have to take this path alone. Indeed it is of great support, when we wish not to fall into identification, if we can describe our felt experience to a Companion, as Eugene Gendlin advocated. I have briefly spoken in previous articles (here, here, here and here) about Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ self-empathy dyad practice and other themes related to self-empathetic enquiry, and will be returning to these again, because this is such a powerful practice for supporting dis-identification and the recognition of Emptiness.
The Buddha himself taught a form of self-empathy dyad exercise, the details of which have been lost. Viewed through a Western and Christian lens, it has been understood by Buddhist historians to be a form of ‘confession’. I find it more congruous given the rest of the Buddha’s teachings, to think of this dyad practice as something akin to what was taught by Eugene Gendlin – with one student being self-empathetically present with whatever was arising in themselves, and describing their experience, while his or her Companion holds space and provides tentative support when they notice their friend falling into identification. One of the few details we have about the Buddha’s mysterious dyad practice is that the Buddha asked his students to pair up without regard to their rank or seniority in the community – so unenlightened disciples would get to pair up with enlightened ones. Not only would this ensure that the general level of experience and maturity within the community would be raised, but a great many bonds of very deep and genuine human connection would be made, and the undermining mutual projections between junior and senior monks would be dissolved.
Pandāravārsini, Amitābha, and the Discriminating Wisdom
When we learn to rest as Consciousness and release our identification with the saṃjñā skandha, it becomes a form of wise evaluative discrimination that is connected to the intelligence of Consciousness itself. At some point during the Indian Mahayana period, the Wisdom that arises when the Emptiness of the saṃjñā skandha is recognised, was named the ‘Discriminating Wisdom’, and it came to be personified by the female Buddha Pandāravārsini, which means ‘White-Robed One’. Partner of the great red male Buddha, Amitābha, she is a central figure in the Padma Family of deities in Tibetan Buddhism, which are associated with the red Western Quadrant of the mandala. A listing of some of the most important associations and correspondences for each of the five Buddha Families is contained in the table below. I shall be talking more about these in future articles.
As the third from the bottom row of the table shows, failure to recognise the Emptiness of the saṃjñā skandha can cause us to fall into the psychology of the archetypal ‘Preta Realm’, which I have spoken about previously (here).
Thank you for reading this article. I am very aware that it is a very much longer one than usual. This has been necessary because my aim has been to introduce all five of the skandhas and to start to give my readers some sense of the relationship between them, and of the foundational part they played in the Buddha’s teachings. There is much more to be said, especially about the important psychological associations between the skandhas and the Realms, and this will be covered in future articles. I have already addressed these connections to some extent in previous articles (here, here, here, here and here), but will be returning to them again.