This is Article No. 5 in the ‘Buddhism’ series.
In my last article (here) in this ‘Buddhism’ series, I attempted a broad outline of the Buddha’s ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching as I have come to understand it. I recommend that you read that article first if you have not done so already. Those who have been reading the previous articles in this series, know that I have been drawing on the larger body of Mahayana Buddhist mandala wisdom, of which the skandhas form the basis – and receiving quite a bit of assistance from Carl Jung. We are very blessed, as modern students of the Buddha’s teaching, to be able to draw on the whole of the Buddhist tradition – its Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana stages – when we wish to be able to understand any particular aspect of it. This is particularly valuable in the case of the ‘Emptiness (Skt: shunyatā) of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching, because the Pali Canon does not give us enough of the detail of the Buddha’s analysis, and much of the meaning appears to have been lost. By drawing on the wisdom of the later enlightened teachers in the Buddhist tradition – especially Padmasambhava’s teachings in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) – we are better able to understand the meaning of what the Buddha was saying.
We are also blessed in that we have the perspective of the great Carl Jung, whose scholarship and wisdom is unfortunately poorly understood, but was an extraordinary gift to humanity. Jung’s views are particularly valuable in this context, because he took the skandhas and incorporated them into the heart of his mandala model of the psyche and into his psychological types framework.
The Rūpa Skandha and the Mirror-Like Wisdom
Traditionally the first skandha is rūpa, and it is usually translated as ‘Form’. When a Buddhist practitioner sits in meditation before a carved image of a Buddha, this image is usually called a ‘rūpa’, yet many interpreters associate the word rūpa with ‘the body’, without adequately explaining that rūpa refers to the form of the body, and not to the sensory experience of the physical body, which is associated with the vedanā skandha. This error is in part because ‘the body’ is often conceptualised in a narrow way – one that fails to acknowledge the subtle, interior, and energetic dimensions of bodily felt experience that we call the somatic. I have explained this distinction in some detail in my previous article (here), and shall be explaining further below.
To avoid the multiple misunderstandings that arise when we confuse ‘Form’ with the physical, sensory body, I have been suggesting that ‘conceptual form’ is a better translation. By adding the word ‘conceptual’ we are making it more clear that rūpa includes the all-important thinking, judging, and conceptualising function of the mind. The Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead), makes it very clear that this was the Buddha’s intention, because it shows us the rūpa skandha as an egoic reflection of that ultimate degree of mental clarity and objectivity that is described as Mirror-Like Wisdom – the ‘thinking’ aspect of the enlightened mind that emerges when all conceptualisations and points of view are recognised as ’empty’.
In the Beginning was the Word …..
For the ‘Five Skandhas‘ model to work, it is necessary for us to associate rūpa with ‘Form’ in the much wider sense – in the archetypal sense. Rūpa is both a descriptive and reasoning function of the mind, and as with the other skandhas, it is a category of data within a complex and completely comprehensive cognitive-perceptual model. We perhaps should not expect it to be easily understood – because it is inherently so deep. The danger here, is that we may attempt to distort the model to make it superficially understandable, and by doing so lose the profound meanings that it would hold for us if we were willing to reflect more deeply. We also have to consider the possibility that there is a high probability that this distortion has already happened in the course of Buddhist history.
There is a clear logic to my assertion that ‘Form’ needs to include ‘conceptual form’ – the rūpa skandha being associated with the Mirror-Like Wisdom, which is regarded in Mahayana Buddhist tradition as the highest expression of the thinking mind, is only our starting point. If we do not identify the rūpa skandha with thinking, then we have nowhere to put the Thinking function of the mind in the skandhas model. This would be like a confusion in the translation of the beginning of the Gospel of John, so that it no longer reads “In the Beginning was the Word ……”.
The Divine Logos – Words, Intellect, Reason, and Conceptual Form
The author of that Gospel clearly saw Jesus as the incarnation of the divine ‘Logos’ – ‘Word’ in English does not quite express the weight of the intended meaning. In ancient Greek philosophy, the Logos was the highest and noblest of human faculties: the naming, conceptualising, and reasoning function of the mind – the most fundamental of the ways in which we describe our world and create our reality. While its egoic reflection as the Thinking function is one of the most fundamental ways in which we maintain our egoic subject-object separation, the Logos is the means of our salvation. It needs to be in the skandhas model somewhere – and all the evidence tells us that rūpa is the place for it.
When we recognise that Thinking, in this ancient Greek sense, is an aspect of what the Buddhist texts mean by rūpa, or ‘Form’, we open up a much deeper understanding of the rūpa skandha – one that brings us much closer to an understanding of the Mirror-Like Wisdom. The Buddha, in talking of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha is inviting us to go back to the beginning, before the perception-creation process began – before form; before the mental act of naming and recognition; back to the primordial intelligence of Being; back to the imperturbable purity and mental silence of Consciousness itself.
Those that follow the Buddha’s advice, and then come back from that place to work in the world for the benefit of all, do so with a mental clarity that is astonishing. Because they are fully aware of the relativity, unsatisfactoriness, and ultimate Emptiness, of all concepts and forms, they use them with great intelligence and discipline – and they find themselves willing and able to engage intellectually with those things which are at the very limit of what may be described.
The Analogy of 3D Animation – Distinguishing Rūpa from Vedanā
There is an analogy that may be useful to help us distinguish rūpa from vedanā – conceptual form from sensation. It comes from the process of creating 3D animation for the movies. That process has two distinct stages and combines two very different sets of data, which are analogous to rūpa and vedanā. The first stage involves a process where figures and landscapes are created as ‘wire-frame’ forms – just mathematically defined lines, planes and volumes, with no colour or substance. This wire-frame stage – the three dimensional geometry of space, and the mathematics and physics of movement – is an expression of the rūpa skandha. It is pure conceptual form without vedanā, without a sensation component.
The second stage, or second aspect, of the 3D animation process is called ‘rendering’. Rendering involves a whole different category of data to define the colours, textures, transparencies, luminosities, reflectiveness of the surfaces, and the nature of the light sources in the landscapes and digital spaces. The rendering process combines all this ‘sensation’ data with the ‘conceptual form’ data to create the cinematic realism that we have become used to when computer graphics are used in film making.
In the light of this analogy it is clear that we have to think of both rūpa (Form) and vedanā (Sensation) as components of the experience of the body. In regards to the body however, we need to remember that, in this context, we are talking about the experience of embodied Consciousness, and that, as I have been trying to emphasise in these articles, is an experience in which all five of the skandhas are manifest.
The Rūpa Skandha – A Good Place to Begin our Self-Enquiry
This perhaps accounts for some of the confusion in regard to rūpa. In his ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching, the Buddha was in effect inviting his students to look inwardly at their experience of embodied Consciousness and to notice that the rūpa, or ‘Form’ aspect of their experience is ’empty’ – and that the vedanā (Sensation), saṃjñā (evaluative discrimination), saṃskāras (volitional energies), and vijñāna (Consciousness) aspects, are ’empty’ also.
We need to acknowledge here that rūpa, or ‘Form’ is often used, in Buddhism, and in wider spiritual discourse, as a generic term for conditioned existence – for all of the four skandhas that are the cognitive-perceptual functions of vijñāna (Consciousness). While the acknowledgement of this profound polarity between, on one side, the universal Consciousness, and on the other side, the relative world of our egoic identification with the cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness, is powerful idea – and a stepping stone to the deeper recognition of the fact that ‘all five’ of the skandhas are ’empty’. Confusion is created however, when that whole four-fold group of egoic functions is referred to as rūpa, or ‘Form’.
Rūpa may be a good starting point for our enquiry into the nature of the body, but it is certainly not equivalent to the body, or sufficient to define the body. Indeed ‘the body’, as the complex sensory vehicle around which our various subtle bodies are arranged, is much better associated with vedanā – if we were trying to identify a single skandha with which it has most affinity. We would do much better not to identify the body with any particular skandha however, but to recognise that the experience we call ‘the body’ is a creation of all four of the cognitive-perceptual functions collectively.
The mandala wisdom tells us that we can begin our enquiry at any point in the mandala – with whichever Skandha-Wisdom polarity speaks most clearly to our condition. There are however, advantages to particular starting points. Sensation, or vedanā, is also a very good place to begin. As I have tried to emphasise previously, meditation is about experiencing ourselves fully – it is about being fully embodied. Experiencing every aspect of ourselves, quickly gets very rich and complex when we examine it closely, because our experience of Sensation (vedanā) cannot be reduced to the physical. Vedanā, or Sensation, always includes the subtle felt experience associated with the other three cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness.
Given the complexity of vedanā, rūpa also provides a good place to start. Like vedanā, rūpa is ultimately all-encompassing, but is perhaps a little simpler, because it is ultimately about objectivity – addressing and describing the objective reality before us, just as it is, without elaboration or evaluation. The journey of seeing the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, and starting to realise the Mirror-Like Wisdom, is one in which we begin to see through everything that the egoic Thinking mind does to interfere with that objectivity – and recognise that our only path to true objectivity is to rest as Consciousness.
Rūpa, the Hell Realms, Objectivity, and the Mirror-Like Wisdom
At worst, the thinking, conceptualising, labeling function of the egoic mind that ancient Indian tradition called rūpa, is that by which we create a masquerade of objectivity, while actually falsifying, distorting, and denying reality – and judging people and things with the falsified, distorted, and incomplete evidence that we are presenting. In the ‘show trial’ of the egoic thinking mind, we are judge, jury and executioner – and also the guard, torturer and hangman. And most significantly we are also the prisoner in the dock, and the one being tortured. The whole intellectual performance is self-aggrandising propaganda and self-justification – or it is guilt and self-hatred. When Padmasambhava told us that our unconscious identification with the rūpa skandha leads us to the Hell Realms he was not joking. I shall be talking more about the Hell Realms below.
When we see the violent and dishonest capabilities of the Thinking mind, the recognition of the Emptiness of the rūpa skanda becomes an urgent necessity. Thankfully the Mirror-Like Wisdom is always available as an aspect of Consciousness, and to glimpse it we only have to stop thinking for a moment and rest ‘as’ Consciousness. Another way of thinking about this is to notice that Consciousness – that inner observer that we had imagined was behind our eyes somewhere, is not subjective and locatable somewhere inside, but objective and non-locatable. That simple act of turning our attention to that which is looking – to Consciousness itself – and resting as that, is all we need to do to step down from the narcissistic platform of the egoic Thinking mind.
It is in the humility of resting as Consciousness, that Objectivity begins to arise. From the vantage point of Consciousness, we get to see the bias and subjectivity of our thoughts. Indeed it becomes painfully clear that all the thoughts of the egoic mind, despite all its claims of objectivity, are just ‘points of view’, ‘perspectives’ and ‘opinions’. Objectivity is always illusive in this world, but we approach it more closely by taking Consciousness as our foundation and our reference point.
The Pervasive Dishonesty of the Egoic Mind
The fact of our identification with the rūpa skandha and our failure to recognise it as empty, means that we are not only dishonest in our thinking, we are also, importantly, extremely naive. We are surrounded by falsity, deception, superficiality, literalism, and fake news – and many of us take all this to be truth. The egoic greed, hatred and delusion that the Buddha spoke of, is now being rammed down our throats. There are now vast industries devoted to convincing us that we need things that we do not need, that we should hate people that we have no need to hate, and filling every dimension of our media with delusion – not just superficiality, but outright lies.
There has always been dishonesty and manipulation, but there are now university degrees, professional roles, and seemingly respectable careers in it – and this is something that the Buddha would not have seen. I am talking about the advertising, public relations, corporate lobbying, political propaganda, intelligence, historical revisionism, military psychological operations, and covert military operations industries – and the proxy wars using Islamic jihadist ‘moderate rebels’, private armies and fascist militias.
This is too big an area to address in this article, but it needs to be said that the modern citizen, even in the liberal democracies, is ill-equipped to deal with the barrage of dishonesty that we face. Even if he or she has a healthy skepticism, the work of sorting truth from falsehood and then making appropriate ethical decisions and taking appropriate actions is very challenging. The functioning of modern democracy certainly requires more than just high quality universal education to high-school level – it ideally requires a culture built on the Five Wisdoms. And the first of these is the Mirror-Like Wisdom – the mental clarity that springs from seeing the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha.
Conceptualising the Ultimately Unknowable
The rūpa skandha, as ‘conceptual form’, is the conceptualising, naming, and thinking function of the mind. As we rest as Consciousness, we become keenly aware of the thinking mind’s unreliability; of its limitations; and indeed of its ’empty’, or impersonal nature. This in turn motivates us to use our conceptual forms – the words and concepts, which are the intellectual currency of our language and culture – with much more care and discipline, while always recognising them to be ultimately empty. This recognition of the limitations of all conceptualising and conceptualisation is very relevant to our current discussion, where we are acknowledging the way words are always in danger of losing their meaning in translation, or through misinterpretation over the centuries.
In the context of spiritual discourse especially, we need to be very aware that concepts can only ever be ‘pointers’ to something beyond themselves – accepting that they are just inadequate conceptual vehicles that we will eventually have to leave behind at some point on our spiritual journey. The process of letting go of our conceptual forms takes place through several stages: initially we progressively develop and refine our language and our conceptual frameworks so that they are more rigorous and experientially true; but eventually – as we have seen happening when the laws of Classical Physics come up against the mind-boggling realities of Quantum Physics – we are forced to recognise the ultimate unknowabilty of things.
The Buddha’s Parable of the Raft
The Buddha addressed this whole question of the limitations of Thinking and concepts using the analogy of a raft. He explained that the conceptual forms (rūpa) that were his teachings, were only a raft to get to the ‘other side’ – to Nirvana. He was inviting us to fully accept that, at that other shore, the raft of mental constructs would have to be left behind. To attempt to pick up the raft, and to try to carry it with us on the further shore, would be foolish – and indeed, it would be impossible.
This is very similar to the ‘finger pointing to the moon’ teaching that I mentioned in my previous article. The Buddha told us that the Dharma was like a finger pointing to the moon because he felt a need to warn us not to get caught up in the concepts, or mistake our understanding of the concepts for Wisdom itself. He wanted us always to be extending ourselves beyond the concepts, and recognising the experience that was being pointed to – reaching beyond the egoic mind to recognise the Buddha’s experience in ourselves.
There is a third, closely related metaphor, that the Buddha used in the same discourse. He spoke of the danger of misunderstanding the Dharma as like picking up a poisonous water snake at the wrong end – at the tail end – so that it whips round and bites us. It is very easy to understand the Buddha’s concepts incorrectly if we are not alert to their limitations and ultimate Emptiness – and if we are not stretching ourselves to grasp that intangible reality that is being pointed to, rather than settling for a merely intellectual understanding.
The Three Levels of Wisdom
The Buddha talked on many occasions about the distinction between intellectual knowing and true wisdom, and his teachings were never presented as truths to be believed in an unreflective way. He taught that there are three levels of Wisdom (Skt: prajñā):
The first of these levels is the wisdom of listening and hearing. We are told that we need to expose ourselves to the teachings, repeatedly, by reading them, or hearing them spoken. It is helpful at this stage, even if the teachings are difficult to grasp intellectually, to at least memorise them, so that we have a basis for contemplation. This valuable, but we cannot stop at this point – we must go much further if we a seeking true wisdom.
The second level of these three levels of wisdom is that of contemplation and reflection. This is the stage that I have been calling ‘self-enquiry’ in this series of articles. Here we take the concepts and turn them over in our minds and make them our own. In an important discourse called the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha urged his students to engage intellectually. However great their reverence might be, they should not be content to just adopt his teachings like religious beliefs, but instead should reflect on them and test them in their own experience. He used the analogy of a goldsmith testing gold for quality. He suggested to his students that they should test all his teachings in their own experience – just as a goldsmith might test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it. This self-enquiry stage will give us glimpses of reality itself, so it naturally leads us to the third stage – the meditation stage of wisdom.
The third level of wisdom is meditation and application. This is the stage where our self-enquiry becomes a meditation practice in which we are applying what we have understood in order to transform ourselves. Here we are deepening into – and familiarising ourselves with – the experiential truth of what we has initially learned only on an intellectual level. This is where we see the moon that the finger is pointing to. While we may be grateful for the conceptual raft that got us to that point, and may continue to reference it, we are no longer dependent on it, because we are resting in, and ‘as’, the source of wisdom, receiving it deeply and allowing it to transform us.
The One Wisdom and the Five Wisdoms
Although we are, at the current stage in this series of articles, starting to investigate that important Mahayana Buddhist formulation, which is the Five Wisdoms – one Wisdom for each of the skandhas, once the Emptiness of each skandha is realised – it is perhaps useful for us to briefly backtrack and acknowledge that the Buddha, for the sake of simplicity, spoke of Wisdom (Skt: prajñā) as single. Rather than attempting to name a separate aspect of Wisdom for each of the five skandhas as the Mahayana did, he just spoke of Wisdom.
While we can assume that this single Wisdom included all the dimensions that were later identified as the Five Wisdoms it seems clear that this single Wisdom was a transcendental expression of intellectual knowledge or Thinking – and therefore appears to correspond most closely to the Mirror-Like Wisdom. In the mandala of the Five Buddhas, the blue Buddha Akshobhya of the Eastern Quadrant, is the one associated with Wisdom. One of the ways in which the archetypal pattern of the later Five Wisdoms did find expression, was in the Buddha’s formulation of the Five Spiritual Faculties (Skt: indriyas), as shown in the diagram below.
By arranging the Five Spiritual Faculties as a mandala in this way we can very clearly see how the Five Wisdoms mandala developed out of the historical Buddha’s teachings, and this in turn gives us a profusion of insights into the ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching that we are currently engaged with – insights that have a particular relevance to our acknowledgement of the ‘conceptual form’ aspect of the rūpa skandha. It is very helpful to be able to see that the later conceptual framework of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism was a logical development of the earlier conceptual framework of the Buddha himself.
It is easy to see that, while Wisdom was initially identified most clearly with Thinking or ‘conceptual form’ (rūpa skandha), there was an increasing need to see Faith (shradhā) and the ‘evaluative discrimination’ or Feeling (saṃjñā skandha) function of the mind as also having the potential to develop into an equally valid form of wisdom – the Discriminating Wisdom of Amitabha Buddha and the female Buddha Pandaravarsini.
Similarly Energy (virya) because of its connection with the ‘volitional energies’ (saṃskaras skandha) came to be associated with that intuitive form of wisdom that understands the archetypal energetic patterns behind our experience, and that motivate us in the spiritual life – the All-Accomplishing Wisdom of the male Buddha Amoghasiddhi and the female Buddha Tara.
The Buddha taught that recognition of the Emptiness of the vedanā skandha was the key to entering Meditation, or samādhi – and as meditation experience accumulated within the Buddhist tradition, there was a further recognition that samādhi is not a special god-like ‘state of consciousness’, but better understood as the universal gift of embodied Consciousness, available equally to all human beings. Hence the realisation of the Emptiness of the vedanā skandha was called the Equalising Wisdom – which is associated with Ratnasambhava Buddha and the female Buddha Mamaki.
Akshobhya and Buddhalocanā
In the mandalas of Buddhist tradition, the Mirror-Like Wisdom is represented by the blue Eastern Quadrant, and in the Tibetan Bardo Thodol text we are urged to release our identification with the rūpa skandha as this will lead to rebirth in the Hell Realms – more on these below. Rather we are urged to recognise the emptiness of the rūpa skandha, so that we are drawn to the light of the blue Buddha Akshobhya (‘Imperturbable’) and his female Buddha consort Buddhalocanā (‘She of the Buddha Eye’) – pronounced buddha-loach-ana.
To recognise the light of the Mirror-Like Wisdom is to recognise our primordially pure and imperturbable true nature as Consciousness. The Mirror-Like Wisdom is associated with the purifying element of Water. To see the emptiness of the rūpa skandha and to realise the Mirror-Like Wisdom is to recognise that mind as Consciousness can no more be affected by thought than an image can stick to a mirror. A thought, for all its seeming power and momentum in the mind, is ultimately no more substantial than a line drawn in water.
The text of the Bardo Thodol invites us to follow the luminous light-path of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, with clear-thinking, imperturbable Akshobhya leading the way and Buddhalocanā always present behind us as our calm and powerful rearguard and protector. I shall be reflecting on these archetypal Buddhas and their symbolism in more detail in a future article, but we need to acknowledge them here because they have so much to tell us about the emptiness of the rūpa skandha. Buddhalocanā, as a personification of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, is that aspect of our resting as Consciousness, or Mindfulness experience, which keeps us connected to a primordial peace, and purity, and non-reactivity, and truth. From the point of view of the Thinking function she is the face of Consciousness within – always objective; always relational; always creative; and always concerned for the greater good and the benefit of all.
The Ayacana Sutta (The Sutta of the Request)
There is much that could be said about the name ‘Buddhalocanā’, whose name means ‘She of the Buddha Eye’, implying that she sees with the intelligence of the Awakened One. While it would not be incorrect to identify her with a non-dual vision that is beyond the intellect, it would be a mistake to idealise the Mirror-Like Wisdom to the point where we fail to recognise it and connect with its implications in our own experience. Because the Buddha recognised the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, he saw the world with a psychological intelligence that encompassed many levels, and he saw, appreciated, and honoured, the many and varied gifts, abilities and dimensions, of the unfolding of human beings.
We are told in the Ayacana Sutta (The Sutta of the Request) that the Buddha was keenly and painfully aware that his non-duality teachings were very subtle and quite possibly too difficult for most of humanity to grasp, and it is suggested that he had a moment of doubt – in which either his own confidence, or his confidence in humanity, faltered. His internal process in regard to this is presented to us in a beautiful mythological way. We are told that the great deva Brahma Sahampati, knowing the Buddha’s mind and recognising his doubts, manifested himself in the Buddha’s presence and delivered a passionate, prayerful plea on behalf of all beings, requesting that Gautama should find a way to teach what he had understood.
The ‘Buddha Eye’ – The Compassionate Intelligence of the Awakened
We are told that this request prompted a profound vision in the Buddha, in which he looked at the world with ‘the Eye of an Awakened One’ and, reflecting on the human condition, saw humanity like blue, red, and white lotuses in a lotus pond, all at in different stages of development, some still in the mud at the bottom; some growing up through but still immersed in the water; some just reaching the surface; and some standing completely clear of water – clean and unaffected by the mud from which they had grown.
In this image we are shown that the ‘eye of the Awakened One’, the ‘Buddha Eye’, as a compassionate psychological intelligence that, because it recognises Emptiness, also has both the confidence and the motivation to teach – and confidence in the ability of human beings to grow and develop, to evolve spiritually, and to build a better world. We also come to see the Buddha as more than just a non-duality teacher. Rather we see a man with a comprehensive cultural engagement with all aspects of human development and human welfare – a cultural engagement underpinned by non-dual realisation, but not confined to it.
The Buddha’s Integration Process – Wisdom and Compassion
This profound and beautifully expressive mythic episode in the Buddha’s enlightenment process stands on its own and speaks to our hearts. We can also however, as a way of amplifying the imagery rather than reducing it, think of this request from an emanation of Brahma as telling us something about the Buddha’s process of integration. Most importantly, it seems he was integrating the brahmavihāras (Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion), and perhaps no less importantly he was also expressing the power of Beauty and of the Imagination; and acknowledging the fact that unconditional value and unconditional love were inseparable from his Wisdom.
The lotus as a symbol is associated with Feeling, and with Loving Kindness and with the Western Quadrant, which is on the opposite side of the mandala from the rūpa skandha, and Thinking, and the Mirror-Like Wisdom (which are associated with the Eastern Quadrant). So, if we choose to see Buddhalocanā’s name as a reference to the Ayacana Sutta, we can see how, in the Wisdoms, the opposition of Thinking and Feeling that we find on the egoic level, are transcended. Wisdom and thoughtful spiritual psychology, on one hand, and Faith, Loving Kindness, and Compassion on the other, are reconciled in the Mirror-Like Wisdom.
The Hell Realms – Judgement, Punishment and Harsh ‘Education’
The Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) tells us that the rūpa skandha is that aspect of the egoic mind that leads us to the Naraka Realms if we let it. The Narakas, or Hell Realms, which I have described previously (here) are characterised by a wide variety of horrible scenes of cruel torture. The Narakas are images not simply of intense suffering – all of the Six Realms depict forms of suffering. Much more importantly, these are archetypal images of judgment and punishment. There are two classes of beings in the Narakas: those who judge and punish, and those who suffer at their hands. The former presumably justifying their judgements and their cruelty with moralistic mental sophistry. This type of mental activity and behaviour is, of course, all too familiar in our everyday human life, and painfully familiar in human history.
Within the Indian cosmological frame of reference of ‘rebirth’, or the transmigration of souls through an endless series of lives, we can imagine that the denizens of the Narakas are alternately reborn as victims and as persecutors. But when we approach the imagery as psychological symbolism we can recognise both classes of beings as personifications of our own psychological parts. We have all had the experience of two egoic parts locked in conflict ‘in our head’, one judging us as ‘wrong’, or criticising our behaviour as ‘bad’, or laying blame, while the other thinks guilty and self-hating thoughts and cowers in distress as it receives condemnation and punishment.
Most of us will also be aware of another familiar internal drama between a pair of thoughts, where one egoic part endeavours to mount a defence against the truthful but harsh and unforgiving description of events that is being presented by a judgemental part, by drawing on every form of deceit and misrepresentation to falsify the evidence. Marshall Rosenberg used to help his students to recognise that these inner critic parts are actually carriers of our own Needs. In other words these parts express volitional energies that are ultimately life-serving – as all life energies are – but because they are unconscious and disconnected they express themselves in a violent and conflictual way. The inner critic might be recognised as an ‘inner educator’ – to use Marshal Rosenberg’s eloquent term – and as having our best interests at heart, if its approach was not so judgemental and punishing. The lies of the defending part may be denying objective truth, but can be seen as understandable – as necessary and justified – given the crushing severity of the condemnation that the internal judge is threatening to hand down.
Equanimity, Being, and the Silence beyond Thought
If we are listening to what the Bardo Thodol is telling us, we need be in no doubt that the rūpa skandha, which if we are identified with it, leads us to experiences symbolised by the Hell Realms, is most definitely associated with the inherent problems of egoic Thinking, or ’conceptual form’. The Mirror-Like Wisdom on the other hand, can be thought of as the capacity for thought and thinking that is non-reactive, non-judgmental, and absolutely objective. As I have explained in previous articles, the Mirror-like Wisdom is connected with the brahmavihāra of Equanimity, which is the corresponding dimension of meditative experience in early Buddhism and ancient Indian spiritual tradition.
In connection with the Mirror-Like Wisdom and Equanimity, I find it also very helpful to acknowledge the Qualia (more on the Qualia below) of Being – a word that has great power in the English language as a pointer to this aspect of meditative experience. When, in meditation, we stop thinking and rest as Consciousness, even for a few moments, we may notice that the internal space of the body appears to be filled with a sense of mental silence – a reality that appears to be present prior to, and simultaneously with, our thoughts. English speaking traditions have pointed to this powerful but indefinable energetic resonance of Consciousness in the Mental Body using the word ‘Being’, and we can approach it in various different ways.
While Being can be thought of perhaps as the sheet of paper on which thought is written, the Buddhist metaphor of the mirror is a very much better one – Being is the perfect mirror of the mind. The imagery of life experience cannot stick to this bright mirror of the mind. For more on the Mirror-Like Wisdom, please see my previous articles (listed at the end of this article) and my retelling of the autobiography of Zen master Hui Neng (here). What is beautifully highlighted by that story is the fact that the purification of mind that we are seeking is, initially at least, not the elimination of all negative thoughts, but rather a pure relationship to whatever thoughts may be present – an attitude of non-identification, or Equanimity, which is metaphorically like a mirror. This is a central idea. Being is not about the content of the mind being perfect. Rather it is just a description of the attitude of resting as the space of Consciousness and completely allowing that space to hold everything in our experience with complete Objectivity – just as it is.
Doing and Being
‘Being’ is often contrasted with ‘Doing’. To take this deeper, we need to understand that ‘Doing’ is one of the central characteristics of the egoic mind. And as all meditators know, even when we are sitting perfectly still in meditation, the Thinking mind is still busy doing. To understand Being more fully however, we need to understand that the choice to ‘Be’ is a profoundly active one – Being is a vigorous assertion of our ’empty’ true nature as Consciousness, and a renunciation of the sleepy passivity of our egoic identification with the Thinking mind.
As we cross the threshold into the world of the Wisdoms, we always find ourselves in this sort of paradoxical territory, and once again we are also reconciling feminine and masculine dimensions. While resting as the space of Consciousness and allowing everything to ‘be as it is’ might be characterised as a ‘feminine’ state – a state of surrender, or of ‘letting go’; we find that it is also a profoundly masculine and assertive state. We also find that, paradoxically, our letting go of identification with the Thinking mind leads, not to a vacant intellectual passivity, but to a new capacity to ‘use our minds’ in intensely incisive, penetrating, and creative ways – ways which avoid the judgements, dishonesty, and intellectual sloppiness of ordinary egoic Thinking. Thus, embodiment of the Mirror-Like Wisdom came to be associated in Buddhist tradition with the vajra – a symbol of masculine potency that I shall be talking about below in this article.
So, Being is a word that we can use to point to and begin to grasp that aspect of resting as Consciousness, which involves releasing our identification with the Thinking mind (rūpa skandha) and opening to Equanimity and the Mirror-Like Wisdom – as aspects of our true nature as Consciousness. I shall be talking more about Being below, as I also find it to be an extremely useful notion for making a deeper connection with the practice of Mindfulness of the Form of the Body (kaya), which is the Foundation of Mindfulness that corresponds to the rūpa skandha.
Bringing Awareness ‘into’ the Body
This implicit choice on the part of the Buddha to address the Thinking aspect of the rūpa skandha by the advice to bring awareness into the ‘Form of the Body’ is deeply significant, and has, for me, a wonderfully contemporary feeling about it – many modern psychotherapists, heirs to the whole tradition of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy going back to Freud, would say the same. We can think of this first ‘Foundation of Mindfulness’ as the first ‘exercise’ of the Buddha’s body-psychotherapy workshop series – the first step in his ’embodied Consciousness’ training; his systematic and comprehensive program of personal, transpersonal and spiritual healing.
It is important to understand that what the Buddha is addressing in his Four Foundations of Mindfulness is not a model in which the first ‘Foundation’ and first skandha relates to the ‘body’ and all the rest are aspects of ‘mind’. On the contrary, all the Foundations, and all the skandhas, are aspects of an integrated ‘body-mind’. Moreover, the whole four-fold process is one of deepening into the experience of embodied Consciousness, at successively deeper levels – starting with Mindfulness of the Form of the Body (rūpa skandha) and working round the mandala in a clockwise direction.
This notion of embodied Consciousness is fundamental to our understanding – there is no Mind / Body split in the Buddha’s model, and it would be a terrible mistake for us to introduce one. This is why it is so important that we do not mistake the rūpa skandha for ‘body’ and do not take Mindfulness of Kaya literally and narrowly as somehow denoting the totality of bodily experience.
The Water Element – the Downward Movement into Embodied Consciousness
In a future article, I would like to go deeper into the reasons why the rūpa skandha; Mindfulness of the Form of the Body; Equanimity; Being; the Mirror-Like Wisdom; the Mental Body; the Hara Chakra; and the Eastern Quadrant of the mandala, are usually taken as the starting point of our four-fold enquiry. One reason is that the rūpa skandha is associated with the Water element in Indian-Himalayan tradition. There are several associations that could be mentioned, but in addition to the idea, in Indian culture, that the Water element is associated with bathing, cleansing and with the beginning of the day, there is the even more important idea that Water is the downward-moving element.
In the Indian-Himalayan element symbolism, Water represents a descending movement of psychological-somatic energy – a downward movement from the merely energetic to the actual, material and practical; from potential to concrete realisation; and from compassionate impulse to action. I shall be talking in a future article about how the Wisdoms work clockwise as a creative cycle in which aspirations and the energetic potentialities (Air Element) recognised by Intuition-Volition are planned by processes of Objective Thinking (Water Element – Mirror-Like Wisdom) and given practical expression (Earth Element) in ways that are informed by the Equalising Wisdom. In Indian-Himalayan tradition the Fire Element symbolises those nourishing human connections, uplifting experiences, and meditative practices that complete the cycle by emotionally re-orientating and reconnecting us (Discriminating Wisdom) to our ideals and our motivation (Air Element) to create, to serve and to compassionately respond.
In these articles I have generally avoided talking about the symbolism of the Elements, partly because of differing Element associations in Western and Indian-Himalayan tradition, but also because people tend to fail to recognise the Elements as archetypes, and want to think of them as physical elements. This is another example of our failure to recognise the Emptiness of Form (rūpa skandha). We do indeed need to recognise that the physical elements in ourselves and in our world are an appearance only – ’empty’ and transitory Forms arising out of the Quantum field and disappearing back into it. Additionally however, there is an urgent need for us to differentiate our Thinking (rūpa skandha) so that we come to recognise the Elements as archetypal symbols – recognising that they participate in our world and effect us as symbols. The ultimate nature of mind is as likely found in poetry as in Physics.
In the context of meditative enquiry, the movement down out of identification with the Thinking mind (rūpa skandha) leads us first into an experience of Being, and then into the experience of Embodiment that is vedanā, or Sensation (Earth Element), which is necessary in order to enter samadhi, or true meditation. The downward movement of the Water Element therefore also symbolically describes the transition from Mindfulness of the Form of the Body (rūpa / kaya) to Mindfulness of Sensation (vedanā). I would like to talk more about this in a future article.
The Five Skandhas and Embodied Consciousness
Implicit in all Buddhist meditation and Mindfulness practice is the goal of achieving embodied Consciousness – especially if we approach Mindfulness through the notion of ‘resting as Consciousness’, as I have been doing in these articles. The five skandhas need to be understood as aspects of a dynamic mind-body process. They present a mind-body structure which is capable of functioning completely coherently if we rest as embodied Consciousness, and release our personalisation of it. The same dynamic structure becomes extremely incoherent and dysfunctional however, if we allow ourselves to experience it through the egoic illusion of separate self-hood – such that there is a personalising identification with Consciousness and its four cognitive-perceptual functions (the five skandhas).
This is why I find the ‘subtle bodies’ model of the body-mind, which we find in Tibetan tradition, so helpful. It gives us a way of understanding (rūpa skandha) how the psychological cognitive-perceptual functions, which are the skandhas, are implicitly always reflected somatically in the four ‘surface’ energy bodies. The mandala of the skandhas shows how the cognitive-perceptual components are dynamically integrated, and the corresponding mandala of the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ (shown below), shows us how our Mindfulness practice can be most balanced and comprehensive.
In a similar way, the ‘subtle bodies’ model, as well as allowing us to locate the skandhas in the body, shows us the integration of the corresponding somatic energies of the body-mind as an arrangement of nested energetic fields, in which the more obvious fields relating to the physical and mental dimensions, are held within and interpenetrated by, the subtler ones relating to the emotional and volitional dimensions – the ‘chakras’ being the locations within the body where we most keenly experience the quality or state of each subtle body. So the universal structure (rūpa skandha) of the body-mind, or psychological energy system, can only be completely described by both the mandala (with its two axes and its cyclical nature) and the nested subtle bodies and chakras (which are arranged as a hierarchy).
These two frameworks, or Forms (rūpa skandha) – the mandala and the hierarchy of the subtle bodies and chakras – can only ever be pointers to the nature of mind, but together they provide a strong platform from which we can engage in a rich and comprehensive process of self-enquiry, and perhaps leap off into the conceptual void of Emptiness. I shall be saying more about the somatic reflection of the mandala in the fields of the body below.
Form as Universal Somatic Structures – the Subtle Bodies and Chakras
The stupa monuments that are familiar all over the Buddhist world may be seen as symbolising the embodiment of Consciousness, in the four ‘surface bodies’ – in apparent persons. Stupa symbolism tends to have become overlaid with cultural elements that obscure this archetypal pattern – and the profound idea that the recognition of the Emptiness of the skandhas is reflected somatically as an energetic coherence in the fields of the body.
In these ‘Mandala of Love’ articles, for lack of a good graphic showing the four interpenetrating ‘surface bodies’ and their corresponding chakras, and the way they are themselves held within the field of Consciousness, I have been representing this idea using the schematic graphic below. This schematic representation of the subtle bodies and chakras does however have the advantage of being made up of just five components, rather than the usual seven or more that is more often seen in esoteric literature, and of not attempting to go into detail about the anatomy of the bodies and chakras. I am of the opinion that, while these somatic structures are fundamental to our understanding and have to be acknowledged, they are also unknowable and empty of self-nature. In approaching a phenomena that is as completely experiential as this, the minimum of conceptual speculation seems best if we are using them as a guide to embodied Consciousness and to Emptiness.
This hierarchical arrangement of five shapes can be associated with the five elements (Earth, Water, Fire Air, and Space); the five skandhas; the brahmavihāras; the Five Wisdoms; or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, but in this diagram they are a representation of the four ‘surface bodies’ and Consciousness (the flame-like feature – like the ‘spire’ of a physical stupa monument). In my experience it is extremely helpful to recognise that all these universal ‘conceptual forms’ (rūpa skandha) – the skandhas, brahmavihāras, Foundations, Wisdoms, etc. – that we are understanding more deeply by locating them within a mandala framework, can also, simultaneously, be located in the universal ‘somatic structure’ (rūpa skandha) of the body. These somatic and archetypal structures (rūpa skandha) being themselves ’empty’, or universal, or archetypal, provide a doorway, when we understand them correctly, into the experience of Emptiness.
This is a complex area of discussion – one which I have addressed recently in a previous article on the skandhas (here), and in several articles before that (including here, here, here, here and here). I shall be returning to this theme later in this article and in future articles. I have felt a need to include this reflection here in connection with the rūpa skandha because it has been so important to challenge the literalistic, unreflective, and very limiting understanding of rūpa as ‘body’, and the correspondingly narrow way of understanding ‘Mindfulness of (the Form of the) Body’ (kaya), that is often seen.
It is of great importance for our understanding of the skandhas model that rūpa is not just translated as Form and then interpreted as ‘the body’, but understood to refer to all aspects of Form including ‘conceptual form’, or Thinking. In talking about the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, the Buddha is referring to the fact that the ‘objective appearances’ of things are just that – appearances. Similarly it is of great importance for our understanding of the balanced and balancing nature of the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’, that Mindfulness of the Form of the Body (kaya), is understood in terms of its relationship to the rūpa skandha, and as a strategy for achieving dis-identification from the Thinking mind. To be truly Mindful of the Form of the Body is to be aware that the Body is only an ’empty’ appearance arising in the ’empty’ field of Consciousness.
If we are to familiarise ourselves with Emptiness in the context of samādhi, we must have a way of locating the Wisdoms in the fields of the body – so that they are no longer abstractions, but felt experiences. A deep and comprehensive practice of Four Foundations of Mindfulness as an insight practice requires, not only a recognition of the roots of the Foundations in the ‘five skandhas‘ model, but a transformation of the egoic patterning in the corresponding subtle bodies.
The Ability to be Mirror-Like
To be mirror-like is to be able to allow things to be as they are, and to be able to let people be as they are. This is a very powerful and beneficial ability – to be rooted enough in the experience of Consciousness, so that we do not affect people negatively by the way we see them: as we judge them in our hearts; or in the verbal content of our communication. This is subtle, but an essential part of our Mindfulness of communication and relationship is our ability to support others through a mirror-like quality of openness and empathy. When we understand that the rūpa skandha is about language, a whole new avenue of personal development opens up for our investigation. Indeed it turns out that all the skandhas are involved in communication, as I shall be explaining in my next article.
When we are identified with the rūpa skandha, and have not yet started to recognise it as ’empty’, we spend our lives identified with the stream of mental judgements that flow through our minds – and we give enormous energy to this process, even deriving our sense of identity from it. The world tells us that this is what smart people do, so we throw our selves into the process of objectifying people with labels and categories, and into forming and expressing judgments and opinions – often completely unaware of the negative effect this is having. In terms of the divisive social psychology of the Hell Realms, we are instinctively making sure that we are in the group doing the judging – because we know that anyone who is not judging, and committed to the negative social skills of judgement and attack, is liable to be placed in the victim group by the social cut and thrust.
The Mirror-Like Wisdom sees through all these games, and gives the mind a different focus – a focus which is also about words and communication, but values silence and empathetic presence – it is an attitude that observes people in an open way and thinks deeply about their psychological journeys and challenges. The distinguishing feature of this Mirror-Like style of relating is that it is interested in the emerging self of the other – it sees the person, not as a thing, but as transpersonal energies and psychological processes awaiting the conditions for their unfoldment in the context of a personality; not as a single separate self, but multiple psychological parts of a soul seeking authenticity and self-knowledge.
Indeed Mirror-Like Wisdom sees the facilitation of Wisdom and personality development in others as the most important purpose of language and communication – and sees connection, friendship, respect, non-judgment, and intimate relationship, as primary vehicles of psychological transformation and of realisation of the non-dual nature of reality.
Mindfulness and the Emptiness of the Vijñāna Skandha (Consciousness)
As spiritual students we usually become keenly aware of the extent to which our minds are appropriated by thought, by conceptual form – as if taken over by a parasite. The Buddha urged us to be aware of this; to recognise the emptiness of the rūpa skandha; and to release our mental identifications. His practice for supporting this dis-identification was his ‘remembering practice’ which we now call Mindfulness. Because I see the Buddha’s ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching as intrinsic to his general concept of Mindfulness, and to the specifics of his ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ teaching, I prefer to speak of Mindfulness in terms of ‘resting as Consciousness’. I have written in more detail about this in my last two articles (here and here).
For me ‘resting as Consciousness’ is very descriptive of the core of the Buddha’s Mindfulness practice. He was inviting us to recognise the ’empty’ and impersonal nature of the vijñāna skandha (Consciousness), and to familiarise ourselves with the possibility that we are not personal in the way that we usually think we are – but rather are an ulimately indefinable appearance. This subtle notion of a negatively-defined Emptiness of self, takes us to an open, gentle, and receptive place, in which we set the personal will aside and just experience ourselves, and allow ourselves to feel relaxed and expanded and connected.
It is initially quite difficult to sustain for more than a few seconds, which is why the Buddha called it ‘remembering’ (Pali – Sati; Sanskrit – SmRti). If we commit ourselves to the practice of remembering and return to resting as Consciousness whenever we remember to do so, we begin to embody Consciousness, and this process of embodiment of Consciousness is the development of Mindfulness.
An important dimension of the cultivation of Mindfulness takes place inwardly: we embody Consciousness through the release of the egoic energies in the somatic fields of the body; we come into that state of integration and alignment with Consciousness that is called samādhi; and we begin to develop that difficult to define attitude and energetic state, which we call Presence, and which I have spoken of previously (including here, and here).
Our embodiment of Consciousness through Mindfulness practice is also an external process, as we become more aware, and more creative in every aspect of our lives – especially in our communication.
Mindfulness of Rupa (Form) / Kaya (Form of the Body)
I recommend the reader to my previous two articles (here and here), in which I have endeavoured to establish our awareness of the little known connection between the Buddha’s Five Skandhas teaching and his Four Foundations of Mindfulness teaching – and as part of that I have been pointing out the very important connection between the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, and Mindfulness of the Form of the Body (i.e. body position in space). This correspondence is, quite probably, the main reason that the rūpa skandha came to be understood as referring to ‘the body’ rather than to the archetype of Form – which manifests as conceptual form, bodily form, cultural form, the forms of things in our world, etc.
Our situation in the modern world is much the same as it was for the Buddha and his disciples – it is difficult to rest as Consciousness, or practice Mindfulness, when we are in the middle of complex tasks. The Buddha therefore pointed out that the simple activities of sitting, walking, standing and lying down, provide very good opportunities for resting as Consciousness. It would seem that resting as Consciousness in the midst of these external rūpa skandha activities of the body, serves to support us in dis-identifying from the internal rūpa skandha activity of the Thinking mind.
While the rūpa skandha, or Form, or the ‘appearance’ of phenomena, or the Form of the Body, give us a place to start from, I need to emphasise strongly that it is only the beginning. By definition Mindfulness is seeking a comprehensive awareness – an awareness without blindspots and unconsciousness. It could be said that we need to practice all for of the Foundations of Mindfulness or we are not practicing Mindfulness at all. And beyond that, we need be thinking about the Foundations of Mindfulness in a way that is truely comprensive – inclusive of all possible phenomena, internal and external. This why the connection with the underlying skandhas teaching is so important.
If we missunderstand Mindfulness practice as a narrowing of our focus and an exclusion of aspects of our experience from the field of our awarenesss, we have been misled. Mindfulness practice is better understood as an abondonment to every aspect of our internal and external experience without exception, and as a practice which makes use of these mandala models (the skandhas, Foundations, Spiritual Faculties, etc.) as self-enquiry checklists, by which can identify and give special attention to, our areas of unconsciousness. If Mindfulness is not vigilant for the Shadow it is not Mindfulness.
Calming the Thinking Mind by Mindfulness of the Form of the Body
It is important to note that, while the Buddha’s concern was that his students should learn to rest as Consciousness and dis-identify from the Thinking mind, he appears, at least in his ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ teaching to have approached this in a rather skillful round-about way. He did not, as is often understood, advise his students to ‘watch their thoughts’. The third of the four ‘Foundations’ is Mindfulness of Citta, which corresponds to the samjñā skandha (evaluative discrimination), is best understood as addressing the emotional or feeling tone of the mind. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness do not advise us to observe thoughts in isolation, but rather to be aware of Mind (Citta) – our general mental, emotional, evaluative and discriminative state (samjñā skandha) – and to rest as that, recognising Citta to be pervaded by Consciousness and empty of self-nature.
While Mindfulness obviously includes a noting of both the feeling tone (samjñā skandha) and the state of mental wandering or proliferation (Pali/Skt: prapañca), or the mind, or not, we are not in general, being asked to transform our egoic mental and emotional patterning by wrestling with the mind. What is actually transformative is the capacity to rest as Consciousness so that that we begin to release our identifications and allow the mind to come into its natural state. The brahmavihāras of Equanimity and Loving Kindness are the mental and emotional aspects of that natural state.
While the rūpa skandha, in the form of our identification with a wandering and proliferating mind, would seem to be our greatest inner adversary, it would seem that the Buddha wished to avoid causing his students to develop an alienated egoic ‘observer of thoughts’, or to build up a ‘spiritual ego’ identification whose purpose might be to police the mind. Rather his approach was the deft side-stepping aikido move of Mindfulness of the Form of the Body – simply being Present as Consciousness in the Form of the Body, attending to its position in space, and letting the Thinking mind be as it is.
The Rūpa Skandha – Form as Form of the Body, and Form as Thinking
It is our experience to this day that this cultivation of Presence (or Being – as I have mentioned above) through attention to the Form of the Body, is a very powerful way of calming the Thinking mind, and more importantly for creating the conditions for our dis-identification from it. Our best path, it would seem, to the realisation of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, begins with the practice of Mindfulness of the Form of the Body. This first ‘Foundation of Mindfulness’ is associated with the blue Eastern Quadrant of the mandala, and this is the first stage of the Buddha’s systematic and comprehensive program, which is set out diagrammatically below.
In these articles I took the four brahmavihāras as my starting point in talking about the mandala as a guide to meditation and self-enquiry, and I would like to continue to refer back to them as we explore the skandhas and Wisdoms. Hence, I have included the brahmavihāras in the mandala above, along with the skandhas, Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and Five Wisdoms. It is very helpful for us to keep in mind the goal – and indeed, the ever present reality – of Equanimity, as we enquire into the nature of the rūpa skandha, and explore the practice of Mindfulness of the Form of the Body (kaya). Equanimity is both an attitude of Consciousness and a dimension of the state of form-less samādhi that we access more and more easily as we become familiar with Consciousness.
This recognition of the power of Mindfulness of the Form of the Body to provide entry into states of somatic integration, is more widespread than we might think. There are many who love to dance, or walk in nature, or go running, or participate in sports of every sort, or perform their craft or service with consummate skill, who are being Mindful without any awareness of the idea of Mindfulness practice. Such people are actually delighting in the experience of Being, and of flow, and of transpersonal alignment, and of inner and outer connection – which they access through absorbing themselves in Consciousness of the movement of the Form of the Body in space. The experience of resting as Consciousness is something that many people access in this way – and move in and out of throughout their days – without ever being consciously aware of the notion of Mindfulness.
In my first article on Mindfulness (here) I expressed criticisms of the way in which Mindfulness of the Form of the Body (kaya) is sometimes taught. The practice of Mindfulness is more subtle than is generally acknowledged, and I prefer approaches to teaching that reflect the emphasis on ‘resting naturally’ as Consciousness, which are seen in later Buddhist tradition. Unfortunately monks by definition, are completely dependent on the lay communities that support them. While there can be a beauty and a genuine mutuality in this arrangement, it can, over the centuries, create an over-identification of Mindfulness with external aspects of rūpa, and an over-focus on particular, more visible, external and bodily forms of Mindfulness practice – forms in which movement is contrived to one degree or another. We do not however, need to move in an unusual way in order to be Mindful. No one needs to notice – it is better, in my view, if our Mindfulness practice is entirely natural and uncontrived.
Allowing the Mental Body to Rest as Consciousness
If we approach Mindfulness of the Form of the Body as an insight practice – and as one that is specifically related to the rūpa skandha and the Mirror-Like Wisdom – we are much more likely to understand its purpose and realise its potential. The Mirror-Like Wisdom tells us that there is an imperturbable stillness, calm, peace and Equanimity that is inherent in our true nature as Consciousness, and that this will begin to inform our Thinking mind if we choose to rest as Consciousness and embody its qualities. Mindfulness of the Form of the Body is a practice in which we turn receptively towards that primordial Equanimity of Consciousness and notice its presence in our experience of Being. The resulting dis-identification from the Thinking mind may seem undramatic – and that it exactly what it so wonderful about it. It is undramatic because it supports a release of our identification with the dramas of the egoic Thinking mind – and is the beginning of Wisdom.
An important understanding for me – one which I sometimes find myself hesitating to share – has been in the context of an awareness of how the beneficial reciprocal connection between Mindfulness of the Form of the Body in the practice of sitting meditation, and Mindfulness of the Form of the Body in the practice of Mindful walking and other activities of daily life. Further to this and more specifically, I find it helpful in sitting meditation to be aware of the connection between Mindfulness of the Form of the Body and the Tibetan notion of the Mental Body, which is the second subtle body, and most keenly felt at the Hara Chakra. This awareness of the energetic anatomy, as I have described earlier in this article, is a very well known idea in the East, and I have spoken about in previous articles (here and here), and believe it is of great practical value to us as meditators.
As Westerners, we have a healthy skepticism about various descriptions of the somatic dimensions of the body – we can be forgiven for finding them too various and too weird to take seriously – and Western Buddhist teachers will often discourage exploration of these phenomena, preferring to keep their students ‘grounded in reality’ and focused on concrete tasks. Unfortunately, while this instinct is understandable, it runs counter to the centuries of meditation experience in both Buddhist and other meditation traditions. As Westerners, we unfortunately have to face into the fact that the experience of samādhi is primarily a somatic experience and only secondarily a mental one.
I find myself able to enter strong states of samādhi every time I sit, and as my experience of meditation deepens, I become more and more convinced of the need for the description of samādhi – and of Emptiness – that the ‘subtle bodies’ provide. We have no choice but to investigate our energetic experience in the fields of the body – the ‘subtle bodies – and by far the best description of these phenomena that I have found, is that which comes from Tibetan Buddhism, and which I have tried to outline in these articles.
I personally use a very much simplified version of the well-known seven-fold model – one which focuses on the four ‘surface’ bodies and largely ignores the rest. If we are new to this territory, but wish to take the plunge, the Mental Body and the Hara Chakra are a very good place to start. I was lucky to come across this the Hara Chakra phenomena in my twenties – through my main Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita (I found him to be very helpful when I was struggling with the Mindfulness of Breathing, in that he advised me to focus on my attention on the hara chakra in the final stage of the practice), and through my practice of Tai Chi, Karate, and Ki Aikido.
Gender Specific Dimensions of our Somatic Anatomy
We should introduce this somatic awareness with care, and with particular awareness of how the Mental Body, and its corresponding Hara Chakra, have a yang or expansive polarity in women and a yin or receptive polarity in men. I have talked about this gender specific dimension of our somatic anatomy in several previous articles, and in my previous article in this series (here). Those of my readers who have not previously come across the gendered nature of the subtle bodies, will nevertheless recognise this somatic energy pattern in their own experience of the feminine and masculine styles of embodiment that we generally see in women and men. Below is the same schematic that I used earlier, showing the subtle bodies and chakras with their corresponding feminine and masculine polarities.
When, using this understanding, we begin to gain a keen experience of what it means to embody Consciousness in the Mental Body (and the other subtle bodies), we will notice our experience of Being and our Mindfulness of the Form of the Body deepening in the context of other activities. The benefit certainly also works the other way round, as when Mindfulness in walking, or Hatha Yoga, or Tai Chi practice brings a solidity to our sitting practice – an allow much quicker and easier access to samādhi.
The Rūpa Skandha and Monasticism
The reflection above on monasticism, highlights an important dimension of the rūpa skandha – the rūpa skandha as ‘cultural form’. When as a practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings, we start to recognise the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, we find ourselves in a different relationship to the forms that Buddhism has taken in the course of its history in various cultures – we are no longer dependent on its particular cultural forms, but more keenly recognise the universal principles that shine through those forms. At the very same time that we find ourselves critical of some of its cultural forms, we have a new appreciation of Buddhism’s great cultural power and richness – and the great necessity of it as a profoundly beneficial social and religious phenomena in our world.
One of the cultural forms that is seen in a new way is monasticism. In Eastern tradition, serious commitment to spiritual practice, tends to be equated with monasticism and with celibacy. In the modern world, East and West, we now have effective forms of contraception, so the success of spiritual communities, and the preservation of spiritual traditions, is less dependent on celibacy than it is on engagement of people from all walks of life in genuine spiritual study and practice. Indeed there is a danger for modern Buddhism, that the identification of commitment with celibacy, discourages interest and engagement with that tradition, relative to other forms of spirituality.
There is much more that can be said on this theme of the Emptiness of cultural forms. The Buddha acknowledged the ultimate Emptiness of the intellectual and cultural forms that his tradition had adopted, in his ‘Parable of the Raft’, which I mentioned above. The implications of this teaching are enormous. Buddhism as a cultural vehicle must convey a non-dual wisdom that cannot, by definition, be ultimately described, and, at the same time, it must also carry the hopes, dreams and ideals, of countless people whose connection with Enlightenment is primarily an intuitive, emotional and religious one – no less genuine, and possible even more passionate than the connection of those whose engagement is more intellectual.
It is of the nature of Buddhism that it responds to a great variety of very different people, all of whom need a religious context for their lives. It would be a mistake for a 21st Century Buddhism to identify itself primarily with monasticism. We all need an existential and cultural container – a cultural form (rūpa skandha) for that sense of something greater that we intuitively recognise – and those who endeavour to live harmoniously in sexual partnerships, or doing their best to bring up children, need Mindfulness no less than those relatively unusual people who are drawn to a life of celibacy.
Mindfulness of Rūpa – Body, and Speech, and Mind
While I acknowledge that it is conceivable that Mindfulness of the Form of the Body could take us all the way to Enlightenment via a recognition of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, I am concerned that Mindfulness practice can become over identified with Mindfulness of the Form of the Body, which is only the first of the Buddha’s Foundations of Mindfulness’. I believe that the Buddha intended us to understand Mindfulness as something that leads to balance and wholeness. We need therefore to attend to all the skandhas, and all of the Foundations of Mindfulness. It would help us to recognise that Mindfulness of the rūpa skandha, actually involves Body, Speech and Mind.
When we understand that the rūpa skandha is not only the ‘form’ of the body, but also ‘conceptual form’, our perspective is massively expanded. Not only is the whole dimension of Thinking and thought, included in our enquiry – we must also include the whole domain of speech and communication. The Buddha highlighted Mindfulness of Communication, and gave a whole limb of his Noble Eight-Fold Path to it – Right Speech, or Perfect Speech. This aspect of the Buddha’s teaching has always been a particular passion of mine. In my next article, I will be explaining how Mindfulness of Communication actually involves all four of the ‘Foundations of Mindfulness’ and all five of the skandhas.
The Rūpa Skandha and the Qualia of Being
To understand why Mindfulness of the Form of the Body should be so important however, it may be helpful to return to the notion of Being, which is an idea in Western thought that is very useful for understanding the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha. Being is what philosophy and neuroscience call a qualia – an unexplainable and indefinable experience associated with Consciousness. It turns out that all phenomena whatsoever are unexplainable and ultimately indefinable experiences associated with Consciousness, as the Buddha asserted in his ‘Emptiness of the Five Skandhas‘ teaching, but there are particular qualia that we need to pay attention to if we wish to understand what the Buddha meant by Emptiness – and Being is one of these.
Being, is one of four ‘principles that defy description’ (Being; Embodiment; Uncaused Happiness; Life Energy) that I have called the Four Qualia, which I have talked about above in this article, and in previous articles (here, here, here, and here) – it is one of four key principles, which can together serve to point us to the ’empty’ experience of embodied Consciousness. Consciousness is itself also a qualia – indeed it is the most fundamental of all qualia, and all the words by which we attempt to define it are also qualia. Emptiness, for example is a qualia; and the Tibetan notions of ‘the Luminosity’, or ‘Basic Space’ that are used to point to Consciousness, are also qualia.
The Buddhist tradition loves rational language, and clear, logical conceptual forms, but at a certain point when it is approaching the ultimate nature of mind, it drops all pretense of rationality and uses qualia – words that are invitations to see beyond conceptual form (rūpa skandha). Reflecting on Being and other powerful qualia is very relevant to our current investigation of the skandhas. It may help us to understand that the skandhas are themselves qualia. As words that refer to concepts that are inherently beyond the rational mind, it is a mistake for us to reduce the subtle meanings of the skandhas to conceptualisations that we can more easily grasp.
The Emptiness and Mutability of Words
Because the skandhas – the five words used for Consciousness and its cognitive perceptual components in Buddhist tradition – are of the nature of qualia, they are only understandable by their context and their associations. The implication of this is that these words carry particular difficult-to-define meanings that the Buddha attached to them in the context of numerous detailed discourses and enquiry dialogues with his students that could not be memorised and passed down in their totality. Although we were not able to be present on all those occasions when the Buddha was referring to these terms, we are not completely lost – but we do need to be careful. Thankfully, there were later Buddhas, like Padmasambhava – who provided us with a beautiful clarification and summary of the skandhas in his Bardo Thodol text.
We need to accept the inherent limitations of the oral tradition that preserved the Buddha’s teachings in chant-able, poetic form. We have no guarantee that those devoted monks who were memorising the Buddha’s words and passing them from generation to generation for 400 years, were themselves realised souls. The meanings of words are by nature mutable, and will change slightly even within a century, and within four centuries they may change their meanings entirely.
Our task therefore, as we engage with the skandhas, needs to recognise the limitations of the rūpa skandha – the limitations of language. We need to use the Thinking mind in a way that is informed by the Mirror-Like Wisdom – which, in part, means thinking with much more subtlety and rigour, and also means being willing to let go of the rational mind entirely, recognising that it can only ever be a raft, or a finger pointing at the moon.
The Five Qualia – Words that Point Beyond the Rūpa Skandha
If we include Consciousness as a qualia, we can speak of Five Qualia, with one of the Five Qualia associated with each of the five skandhas – as shown in the diagram below. When we are entering territory in which the intellectual mind can no longer help us, these words that defy definition can sometimes be of great assistance – as pointers to a reality that is beyond the rūpa skandha – beyond conceptual form.
The diagram above shows the Five Qualia arranged as a mandala with their corresponding associations among the Five Wisdoms. When we sit in meditation and just rest as Consciousness, all of these Five Qualia are present, but probably the most obvious of these, for most people, is Being. The power of Being as a pointer to our experience of Emptiness, is precisely in its intangibility. Being cannot be precisely described or located – it is an ever present experience, but it is not just personal. It appears to be related to the field of the body, and the practice of Mindfulness of the Body brings our attention to it, but it is bigger than the body – it connects us inwardly and outwardly and expands us beyond ourselves, in a way that is very undramatic and still.
Being is word we use to talk about the existential confrontation with the source of our Consciousness and the source of our apparent self-hood, in which we ultimately recognise the presence of something far greater than ourselves – something within, that is objectively present but beyond the personal. To recognise Being is to recognise and embrace the fact and the necessity of our relational unity with Consciousness. It is normal to overlook Being completely, but when we are just sitting, or walking, or standing, or lying down, we have an opportunity to acknowledge it, and familiarise ourselves with it, and to notice the effect of our recognition of it.
The Five Qualia – Attempting to Describe Emptiness
I have spoken about the Qualia previously, and will be returning to them again because they are extremely relevant to the ‘Five Skandhas‘ teaching. To those who find the words that I have chosen for the Qualia to be rather vague and intangible, I would like to say, hopefully as some form of reassurance, that this vagueness is inevitable. When the purpose of our conceptual framework of self-enquiry is to point to that which cannot be conceptualised, there is great value in words that inherently defy the rational mind – and serve as a container for an intuitive knowing that can reach beyond ordinary Thinking, and begin to apprehend the unknowable.
I initially created the Four Qualia formulation to support myself in my meditations on the cycle of the four brahmavihāras – and I have presented them in my articles (here, and here) as a possible ‘way in’ for those wishing to familiarise themselves with the brahmavihāras. As soon as I started using them however, it was clear that they also provide a ‘way in’ for exploring the Five Wisdoms – the Buddhist Five Wisdoms and the ancient Indian brahmavihāras, being different ways of approaching the same inner territory of samādhi. The Buddhist tradition by developing the notion of the mahabrahmavihāras, or ‘great’ brahmavihāras – one corresponding to each of the brahmavihāras – was able to set the previously established Vedic framework on a new, non-personal, footing. Once it is understood that the brahmavihāras have a transpersonal source in Consciousness, there can be no doubt that there are direct correspondences between the Five Wisdoms and the brahmavihāras. These correspondences are shown in the mandala diagram below.
The Qualia therefore, are intended to help us to enter a dimension in which we give up trying to understand our experience with the rational mind, and just rest ‘as’ the universal cognitive-perceptual processes of Consciousness. The Qualia are just experiential pointers to that wisdom state in which the personalising habits of mind are released; and in which we acknowledge that everything is process. They are an attempt to find conceptual forms that reflect the unknowability of the territory that we find ourselves in. Again and again we are reminded of the Buddha’s teaching that the Dharma is like a ‘raft’ or a ‘finger pointing at the moon’. We need to recognise that all our concepts and formulations can only ever be pointers – and we need to be ready to release those conceptual forms as soon as they no longer serve us.
The Heart Sutra – The Dawn of Wisdom and Compassion
We cannot talk about the rūpa skandha without some reference to the famous Heart Sutra – a central text among the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, and some might say, a central text of the whole Buddhist tradition. In this short text a profound epiphany is depicted in which the Bodhisattva of Compassion, sitting in meditation with the Buddha and a great company of other beings, crosses a decisive threshold into Perfect Enlightenment. This great breakthrough is understood to be his final complete recognition of the Emptiness of the Five Skandhas. Below are the opening lines of a version of the Heart Sutra by Zen teacher, Philip Kapleau (1912 – 2004) – a short, rhythmic, chantable version which is often used in the context of Buddhist worship (puja).
The Bodhisattva of Compassion,
When he meditated deeply,
Saw the Emptiness of all five skandhas,
And sundered the bonds that caused him suffering.
Form (rūpa) is no other than Emptiness (shunyatā),
Emptiness no other than Form,
Form is only Emptiness,
Emptiness only Form.
Feeling (vedanā), Thought (samjñā), and Choice (sanskaras),
Consciousness (vijñāna) itself,
Are the same as this.
In these key lines at the beginning of this key Sutra, the rūpa skandha appears to be being highlighted relative to all the others, and Emptiness (shunyatā) appears to be being given more importance than the Consciousness skandha (Skt: vijñāna) itself. As we read these lines there is a sense that Emptiness is being used as a synonym for the ’empty’ field of Consciousness, and that Form (rūpa) is being used as a synonym for ‘appearance’ in general – for all of the four ’empty’ skandhas that are cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness. We are being told that the ’empty’ field of Consciousness pervades appearances and is inseparable from them. Emptiness pervades all perception and discrimination. There is no experiencer in the experiencing.
These lines are taken from a translation of the Heart Sutra that I have a strong emotional connection with because I have chanted it so many times. As those who have read my previous post (here) will know however, I am not completely happy with the line: “Feeling (vedanā), Thought (samjñā), and Choice (sanskaras)“. There is of course a need for a poetic flow in the line, but ideally there also needs to enough accuracy to draw the reader into deeper contemplation. While I am very fond of the translation above, I cannot help feeling that something like ‘Sensation (vedanā), Evaluation (samjñā), and Choice (sanskaras)‘ might strike a better balance. If we chant the words in their established form it important that we do this with the awareness of the limitation that is inherent in all words as the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha – and we should not let this simplified chantable version put us off deeper engagement with the Buddha’s analysis of the five skandhas.
I have spoken previously (here and above in this article) about the limitations of ‘feeling’ as a translation of vedanā, and I am sure many would agree with me. When we understand how identification with samjñā leads to the Preta Realm as Mahayana tradition did, then ‘Thought’ is no better as a translation than ‘perception’, which is more commonly seen. I have been proposing ‘evaluative discrimination’ or simply Feeling (following Jung) in these articles, but ‘evaluation’ could work better in this context. Sanskaras expresses the complex idea of the ‘volitional energies’ – conscious and unconscious – that both drive the cognitive-perceptual process and sustain our sense of the separate self-hood and egoic will. ‘Choice’ is not a bad rendering for this – ‘Volition’ is probably too psychological a term, and tends to be associated with consciousness only, whereas ‘choice’ can include unconscious choice.
I have a great love of the Heart Sutra. In it is usual translation however, it needs to be understood primarily as a mythic, poetic, and dramatic text – and as a devotional one – not as a source text for Buddhist non-dual wisdom. The historical Buddha, and the Buddha’s historical companions (including Ananda and Sariputra) are participants in the scene that the Heart Sutra describes, and it supposedly occurs at a real location – Vultures Peak, near Bodhagaya. But the main drama – the liberating recognition of the ‘Emptiness of All Five Skandhas‘ and the arising of Perfect Wisdom – is happening in the heart of an archetypal being – Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There is a beautiful sense that the whole mythic drama is happening outside of time and space, and that Avalokiteshvara’s experience represents that non-personal experience that had occurred within the Buddha at the time of his Enlightenment – and will occur within all who gain Enlightenment for all eternity.
While the Heart Sutra powerfully affirms the value of reflection on the skandhas – and gives us a clear sense of their cosmic importance – unfortunately, most students are left with the feeling that the skandhas are completely impenetrable. If we are looking for a Perfection of Wisdom study text, Padmasambhava’s mandala arrangement of the five skandhas in the Bardo Thodol – which has been my primary source for my reflections in these articles – is more use to us, in my view. Because it clearly sets out all the Poisons, Realms and Wisdoms that correspond to the skandhas, and because it shows the relationship between these elements with such graphic power in the imagery of the male and female Buddhas, it is much more helpful to us – if we can distill out the essence from the profusion of imagery. Like the Heart Sutra, it expresses its truths using archetypal imagery, and by engaging our imaginal faculty.
Spirit and Matter, Consciousness and Form (Rūpa)
The fact that ‘Form’, or rūpa, is sometimes used as an generic or ‘umbrella’ term, which encompasses the whole of relative existence, and includes all of the cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness, is problematic in various ways, especially in that it leads to the confusion of rūpa (Form) with vedanā (Sensation), which I have spoken of above – but it also highlights the particular importance of rūpa. The word ‘Being’ gets used as a generic or umbrella term in a similar way – and there is an important connection there, which is perhaps worth drawing attention to. As I have spoke of above, for many the notion of Being is a point of entry into subtle and difficult-to define experiences of Mindfulness, Emptiness and embodied Consciousness.
The dichotomy of Spirit and Matter in Western tradition is an example of a ‘conceptual form’ that is spiritually unhelpful. The Buddhist tradition tries very hard to avoid such seemingly irreconcilable dualities, but nevertheless occasionally falls into them. The statement in the Heart Sutra that “Form is only Emptiness, Emptiness is only Form” is intended as an invitation to recognise the untruth of this apparent duality in our experience. The duality of Form and Emptiness, or rūpa and Consciousness, is perhaps more easily transcended when we think of the Emptiness of rūpa, or Form, in terms of Being.
The effect of practicing Mindfulness of the Form of the Body, in a way that explicitly acknowledges the experience of Being, is that the thinking Mind begins to become still and, even more significantly, a dis-identification from Thinking begins to take place. By thinking of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha as an experience of Being, we allow Being, or embodied Consciousness to move into the foreground of our experience, and allow Thinking to recede – but without establishing a duality or opposition between them. Thinking can be allowed to be present without identification. This is enormously significant because it is from this place of dis-identification that we begin to recognise the Emptiness of the Thinking aspect of the rūpa skandha.
Presence, Connection, Being and Equanimity
There is an evolution in the form of the Tibetan Buddhist mandalas, which needs to be acknowledged in regard to the rūpa skandha (Form) and the Mirror-Like Wisdom. Those who are fascinated by the Tibetan mandalas will have noticed that the blue Eastern Quadrant is often replaced with a white one as shown in the image below (note that Tibetan tradition places the Eastern Quadrant at the bottom of the mandala). I personally much prefer the earlier traditional form which was used in the Bardo Thodol symbolism and by Padmasambhava – there is a danger that these modified mandalas fail to indicate the centrality of Consciousness. This common modification is however, another cultural expression of the close relationship between Form and Emptiness; of the primacy given to the Mirror-Like Wisdom; and of the great importance that came to be given to the white figure of Vajrasattva, the youthful male Bodhisattva form, or reflex form, of the blue Buddha Akshobhya.
While Akshobhya also personifies the Mirror-Like Wisdom, Vajrasattva emerged as the figure that is most closely associated with the primordial purity of the mind as Consciousness. Since Buddhist practice is often focused on the purification of bad karma, and in a more mundane sense on forgiveness, Vajrasattva became central in the Tibetan Buddhist system of practice – seemingly even more important than Vairocana, the white Buddha who personifies the Dharmadhātu Wisdom.
We can take this as yet further affirmation, if this were needed, of the great importance of the recognition of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha as the foundation of our self-enquiry and meditation practice. When we rest as Consciousness with this particular focus on the Mental Body – the rūpa skandha finds resonance in the Mental Body, which is most keenly felt in the Hara Chakra area – we do indeed enter into a profound process of purification and self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others. This purification and forgiveness does not have to be conscious to be very powerful – the healing process that we are talking about here is primarily an energetic one.
When we meditate with this focus, we can access that primordial wisdom state which is personified by Vajrasattva, by keeping in mind five principles, which support this practice of energetic healing: Presence, Connection, Being, Equanimity and Emptiness. We can think of these as ‘power words’ – as archetypal principles with great healing potency. Presence, Connection and Emptiness are associated with the Dharmadhātu Wisdom – they pervade the whole mandala. Being and Equanimity however are specific to Mirror-Like Wisdom. Together they constitute a path of purification. Just sit, Mindful of the Form of the Body and bring these principles to mind.
Vajrasattva embodies the healing power of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, and that power is visualised as a descending flow (Water element) – a descending flow of healing light. You may find it helpful, as I do, to think of the Mirror-like Wisdom as that aspect of Consciousness that heals the egoic residues in the Mental Body – which is the second subtle body, and is most keenly felt at the Hara Chakra. If is important to be aware that the Mental Body is expansive in women and receptive in men (more on this in my previous articles here and here).
Presence refers to the vibrant and ’empty’ Presence of embodied Consciousness, which descends upon us as we hold the intention to rest in the present moment of Consciousness – renouncing thoughts of past or future.
Connection can be thought of as the feminine, or receptive, counterpart of Presence, and as an inward opening to the Objective reality of Consciousness and the Form dimension of the universe. Not only are we endeavouring to expand into an acknowledgement of our inherent connection to all things whatsoever, but we are opening receptively to that – allowing it to empower us and purify us of the energy of limiting or judgemental Thinking.
Being, I have already spoken of, but it communicates a complete allowing of what is, which is at the same time a vigorous assertion of our true nature as embodied Consciousness – even as we are still un-transformed and subject to afflictive states.
Equanimity is the recognition that the peace, the allowing of what is, and the non-reactivity that is inherent in Consciousness, and is always available to us; that it is our essential nature; and that it is of the nature of the field of Consciousness in which we rest.
Emptiness (Skt: shunyatā) is, in part, a subtle conceptualisation – a way of talking about the lack self of self-nature in all things – but it also a qualia, and an attempt to point directly to our actual but ultimately in-describable experience of the impersonal nature of Consciousness. In meditation it is always valuable to turn our attention toward the universal self-knowing awareness, which the Buddhist tradition speaks of in terms of Emptiness. Even though there is nothing to see, it is important keep this reality in mind. Meditation, at least if it is Wisdom we are seeking, always seeks to wash away the separate self – flushing out the energetic reflections of egoic identification from the subtle bodies.
The Alienated, Disconnected Intellect
René Descartes stated: “I think therefore I am”. In a previous article (here), I talked about the tragic error behind that limiting idea, and the cultural implications of such an awful equation. There is undoubtedly an archetypal connection between Thinking and Being, but it is a very much more complex one than this statement might suggest. When our sense of Being, and our sense of connection to an authentic source of Being within ourselves is challenged, we will often seek a solution in deep psychological and spiritual ideas – but we will be lucky if we find the deep healing that we seek.
If we fail to find ideas that support our recognition of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, and we fail to correctly understand the nature and value of the Buddha’s associated Mindfulness of Body (Kaya) practice, we may find that our intellectual pursuits actually contribute to our alienation. We find ourselves in a ‘knowledge trap’, or ‘insight trap’ – there is knowledge and psychological insight, but very limited capacity to rest as Consciousness, and little or no access to real transformation.
The Denial of Body and Being / Body and Being as the Path
So unfortunately, the opposite of Descartes’ statement is often true – we use the intellect as a refuge from the pain that we have incorrectly learnt to associate with Being. Indeed, given certain traumatic conditions in very early childhood, which are unfortunately fairly common, we will shrink from the experience of existence – from Being – and we will use the intellect as the means of that retreat, even when we are intent on healing, transformation, and the acknowledgement of others. Such early fear and threat is difficult to unravel. We are talking here of a baby who feels rejected and hated – and even envied. The individual with this conditioning will understandably often have a fragile but pervasive egoic defense, which is seeking to withdraw from life – even when their conscious intention is to participate, to contribute, and to grow.
When we come across such an individual – one who carries a psychological part from a very early, pre-verbal, period of childhood, that feels (not thinks) that his/her authentic self is unwelcome in this world, we need very compassionate conceptualisations that will allow us to think about their needs in a sophisticated way. It needs to be acknowledged that this individual is not expressing an ordinary egoic defense such as we might develop in later childhood or early adulthood, but has established a more primitive defense that was patterned into the Mental Body before the child was able to think.
Such patterning has great energetic power, which will continue to tend to provoke a repeat of the wounding dynamic of ‘feeling hated’ in every intimate relationship and experience of community – until a healthy sense of Being is recovered by healing this energetic patterning in the surface bodies. I speak from first hand knowledge of psychological dynamics like this. One of the reasons why I am such a strong advocate of a more sophisticated and somatic approach to teaching meditation, is because I understand from my own experience how difficult meditation can be. Having struggled for many years, with practices that did not suit me, and with a conceptual framework that was to limited, I feel very strongly that meditation teachers would serve their students better by providing them with a much more comprehensive map of the inner territory of meditation – so that they have the resources to make their own choices and find their own way.
The Schizoid Defense of Wilhelm Reich
This type of egoic patterning was particularly well articulated by Sigmund Freud’s brilliant and innovative student Wilhelm Reich. Reich’s thinking and therapeutic approach courageously embraced the difficult-to talk-about somatic dimension, and fits very easily into a non-dual spiritual psychology like that of the Buddha. Wilhelm Reich called this dynamic schizoid. This type of characterology is very relevant to spiritual discourse, because those who suffer in this way, will often be drawn to spiritual study and practice, and are likely to see ‘spiritual’ lifestyles either as offering a path of healing, or as legitimising their longing for an existential retreat from life.
The schizoid pattern is part of the normal-neurotic spectrum of human psychological experience. We are all ‘split’, but some of us are more split than others. We can also think of the schizoid pattern as one in which a ‘manager’, or defensive psychological part, uses the intellect, or Thinking mind (rūpa skandha), and may also use work and creative activity, to justify our existence, and to create a compensatory sense of personal value, and a even sense of specialness, in the face of a deeper ‘exiled’ psychological part that has learnt to fundamentally doubt its right to exist – to be. The Mirror-Like Wisdom is the perfect antidote and healing for this type of defense, because it is an attitude of Consciousness that allows us to be; to exist; and to rest – to rest as Consciousness.
The practice of Mindfulness of the Form of the Body, in various ways, has a particular importance for those whose healing journey includes this particular internal confrontation, and meditation teachers need to be willing to allow their students to find their own way in this regard. I have come across ill-informed Buddhist teachers for example, who are extremely intolerant and discouraging in regard to Hatha Yoga practice, or Tai Chi and Chi Kung. This is absurd – and is potentially very harmful advice if the individual concerned is using these practices as way of healing a schizoid wound and for recovering a connection to a somatic sense of self and a healthy sense of Being.
The schizoid style of egoic defense has much to teach many of us – we are all touched by this manic flight into mental activity. For many Westerners the spiritual path begins with the challenge of coming into an experience of Being, so that the mind can become quiet. If we can embrace that mental Emptiness, allowing ourselves to rest as Consciousness and be guided by Being rather than by the Thinking mind, we will have begun our healing journey.
William Blake’s Urizen – Mind-Forged Manacles
Concurrently with my intensive studies of Buddhism and the work of Carl Jung in my twenties, I also engaged in a very deep study of the works of the great English poet and artist William Blake (1757 – 1827). One of the most striking aspects of William Blake from a Buddhist and Jungian point of view is the way he adopted a four-fold mandala framework for the narrative structure of several of his longer ‘prophetic’ poems. He used this mandala framework to present a psychological and spiritual vision that is very similar to the skandhas model that we are currently exploring – yet another manifestation of the universal mandala archetype.
Blake was a visionary Christian with a highly personal sense of Jesus as an indwelling spiritual force in the human soul. Utilising the Christian language of his culture, he sought to create a rich poetic description of ‘the Fall’. Several of his beautifully illustrated prophetic poems graphically describe a traumatic splitting of the four-fold wholeness and unity of the psyche into four ‘Zoas’, who function like egoic parts – unbalanced, inflated, and alienated from their true eternal nature. Blake’s four Zoas – Urizen, Tharmas, Luvah/Orc and Urthona/Los – are easily recognisable as personifications of the four archetypal cognitive-perceptual functions, and together they present a very similar psychological model to the one we find in the ancient Indian skandhas.
In the context of this article, the most important of Blake’s mythic figures is Urizen, who corresponds to the rūpa skandha, and is a personification of fallen Reason. The depiction of Urizen below is probably the most positive of Blake’s images of this figure. He is more often depicted as oppressive and depressive. The poetry associates him with despair – he represents a contraction of the soul through moralistic spirituality; through scientific materialism; and through a denial of the erotic, of the imaginative, and of the creative life energy of humanity. In this image we see his connection with the rūpa skandha, or conceptual form, very clearly. We see him here measuring out the cold, dark, soulless expanse of space in the creation of his desolate, scientific materialist universe. The dividers with which he is measuring are a symbol of the divisive and dualistic nature of the Thinking mind.
It is illuminating for us in the 21st century to see the world through the eyes of William Blake at the end of the 18th century. This was the time of the beginning of the industrial revolution and of global capitalism – a time when all the horrors and excesses of colonialism, the slave trade, and the extreme exploitation of the poor, were being justified by a self-righteous rationalism that masqueraded as a form of Christianity, even though it was alienated from human needs. While Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’ are no longer as black with coal smoke as they were, the archetypal hell realm that Blake witnessed is still with us – the social reality and the mentality of Urizen’s “single-vision” continues to shape our culture, crushing out the “four-fold vision” of a wise, compassionate and humanitarian world. Only by recognising the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha can we break out of the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of Urizen.
Vajra – What it Is, and What it is Not
The Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, and the realisation of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, is associated in Tibetan Buddhist tradition with the vajra, or Diamond Thunderbolt – the Diamond Scepter of Tibetan ritual and iconography. Indeed the vajra, originally a phallic symbol and a weapon in Indian mythology became the symbol in Buddhist tradition, not only of non-dual, or transcendental wisdom, but of the power of that wisdom – its power to create from a place of truth and compassion, and the power to cut through or unravel egoic Thinking. As a symbol, the vajra is the very opposite of the dividers of Urizen, and it really deserves an article of its own, but I feel a need to briefly describe it here, in connection with the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha.
When mental clarity is truly rooted in non-dual wisdom it will often be expressed in an extremely incisive way – and it will also often be expressed with great conviction. This has unfortunately led to a situation where some Buddhist practitioners mistakenly associate the vajra quality with a forceful and aggressive style of communication. The vajra is indeed a symbol of power, but more importantly it is a symbol of the Mirror-Like Wisdom – the recognition of the Emptiness of conceptual form (rūpa) – not just intellectual conviction and force of argument. As I have been trying to explain above, the Mirror-Like Wisdom is relational and non-judgemental – and it finds expression in Equanimity; in respectful and thoughtful communication; and in an attitude of interest in the emerging ‘authentic self’ of the other.
The authentic self that I am talking about here is, of course paradoxical and difficult to describe, because it is ultimately ’empty’ as the Buddha explained. It is however, eloquently described by the symbolism of the vajra, as I hope to show below.
The Vajra – Pointing us Back to Consciousness
Although there are more elaborate forms, the most common form of the vajra is the one pictured above. With its five prongs at each end, the vajra carries much the same archetypal symbolism as the mandala. When we look directly along the central axis from either end of a vajra we see that the groups of five prongs form a mandala-like arrangement.
The sphere in the centre of the vajra, which binds its two groups of five prongs together, is a symbol of Emptiness. From this sphere spring two lotuses, which are feminine-receptive symbols, and symbols, in Buddhist tradition, of tenderness, sensitivity and Feeling – symbols we associate with the opposite (Western) side of the mandala. Tradition holds that one lotus represents Saṃsara (egoic ‘wandering’) and one represents Nirvana (release from egoic identification). From each of these two lotuses springs a central prong, and four mythological half-fish, half-crocodile creatures called makaras (representing the union of opposites). The tongues of the two groups of four makaras form more prongs, which come together to join the central ones at each end.
So one end of the vajra is pointing to Consciousness, and to the liberating realisation of the Emptiness of the Five Skandhas, and to the Five Wisdoms; and the other end is pointing to our egoic identification with the Five Skandhas, to the Realms, and to the Five ‘Poisons’ that bind the egoic mind. All four of the Four Noble Truths are there in the symbol of the vajra: (1) dukkha (suffering, unconsciousness, egoic dysfunction, identification); (2) the cause of dukkha; (3) the cessation of dukkha; and (4) the path to the cessation of dukkha – and all Four Noble Truths are happening simultaneously. The Five Wisdoms represent an unflinching recognition of our egoic bondage and its causes. They are both the Path and the Goal. For more on the Four Noble Truths, please consider reading the first article in this series (here).
This is the point about the vajra as a symbol of the mind – Saṃsara and Nirvana are reconciled in every moment of Consciousness. All the opposites are always present – the existential tension between the relative and absolute is held in perfect balance. The vajra is a pointer that points in both directions simultaneously. The Mirror-Like Wisdom sees through all points of view – so there can be no manic idealistic thinking that fails to see its own Shadow; and there can be no despair, because the primordial purity of Consciousness is never affected by anything that happens.
When the vajra of the mind points to Hell Realms of judgment and punishment, its other end is pointing to Consciousness, and to the stillness of Being, and to the ever present clarity of the Mirror-Like Wisdom.
When the vajra of the mind points to a Human Realm of pride, identity, difference, and separation, its other end is pointing to the Consciousness that pervades the universe equally and evenly, and can find equal Embodiment in any person who chooses to receive its gift (Equalising Wisdom).
When the vajra of the mind points to a Preta Realm of desperate emotional emptiness and compulsive craving, its other end is pointing to Consciousness, to Uncaused Happiness, and to the contentment and self-possessed emotional discernment of the Discriminating Wisdom.
When the vajra of the mind points to an Asura Realm of envy, power games, and manipulation, its other end is pointing to Consciousness, and to the All-Accomplishing Wisdom that recognises the evolutionary energy of Compassion in all motivations.
When the vajra of the mind points to a Deva Realm of personalising spirituality and refined narcissism, its other end is pointing to Consciousness, showing us that self-hood is an illusion caused by the ever present light of the universal Consciousness (Dharmadhātu Wisdom).
Moving Beyond Literalism
There are always deeper currents of transpersonal meaning informing our seemingly personal lives. Conceptual forms that are merely literal and rational, cannot express the whole of what is happening – they cannot describe our world. This is why we need poetry and art to express the soul’s inner and collective dimensions – as the Buddha understood. We have been very blessed in Western culture to be the inheritors of rich cultural movements in art, literature, poetry, and music, which have pushed back the boundaries and extended our culture beyond its previous more literalistic and figurative forms. The decades before the first world war and between the two world wars, were extremely rich in this regard. This article is already too long, so I will not go into detail, but this is a vast area for reflection. Some of my deepest moments of Mindfulness, when I was first studying Buddhism in my twenties, were spent in art galleries.
The painting above, painted by Marc Chagall in 1943 – one of his many curious and seemingly irrational paintings. It shows a male and a female figure embracing each other in a scene of blue moonlight on snow in a Russian village, with the presences of farm animals close by – a remembered impression from years before. Standing in front of a painting like this, we can find ourselves confronted, and called to move beyond our literalism – our ‘conceptual forms’ are revealed to be ’empty’ and inadequate. If we can tolerate our sense of ‘not knowing’, we may even find ourselves transported into an experience of Being.
Our recognition of the Emptiness of the skandhas, is in part a process of stretching ourselves intellectually and aesthetically, so that we learn to fully experience both the beautiful sensory surfaces and the profound but illusive meanings of things – and allow them to speak simultaneously to the soul. I am afraid this is only a brief acknowledgement of a vast area of cultural experience, but I have felt that it is important to at least refer to this as an aspect of our experience of going beyond the limitations of the rūpa skandha – conceptual form and the rational mind.
Embodied Consciousness, Objective Observation and Objective Thinking
In various previous articles (here, here, here and here), I outlined the clear correspondence between, on one side, the mandala of the Five Skandhas and Five Wisdoms in Buddhist tradition, and on the other side, the mandala of the ‘four components of communication’ in the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model of Marshall Rosenberg. In regard to this I should mention briefly, for those interested in this NVC mandala (shown below), that the component of communication in the NVC model that corresponds to the rūpa skandha is objective ‘Observations’ – which refers to the way Mirror-Like Wisdom finds expression in our capacity to objectively recognise, conceptualise, and find accurate words to describe, what we are seeing and hearing, both inwardly and outwardly. Thinking that is genuinely objective, truthful and honest is not easy, because it requires us to rest as Consciousness – to step out of the inherent bias of our various egoic points of view, and to allow the reality of what is.
Rūpa can be translated as conceptual form, but it would be a mistake to think of it only as a passive recognition of conceptual objects. Rūpa is also an active principle by which we create our world or shape our perception of it. Everything about our experience, is coloured by our conceptualisation of it. The rūpa skandha is that mental function which labels, conceptualises and thinks about our world – and in doing this it creates our experience. Thoughtful and skillful conceptualisation creates skilful communication, which creates a better world; and un-thoughtful and unskillful conceptualisation creates un-thoughtful and unskillful communication, which creates Hell Realms – as the Buddha explained.
The Buddha went further however, and explained that a peaceful and compassionate world requires the spiritual leadership of those who are effective creators because they recognise that paradoxically, objectivity arises only when we release our identification with our Thinking. The recognition of the Emptiness of the rūpa skandha, and the realisation of the Mirror-Like Wisdom, means allowing the Mental Body to rest as Consciousness, so that our Thinking increasingly becomes an expression of Consciousness, and an expression of our true nature as Wisdom.
We do not have to have recognised Consciousness to be able to think objectively – but it really helps. To embody the Mirror-Like Wisdom is to be no longer identified with our Thinking – our conceptual forms. Instead we use conceptual forms as tools and materials in our creative endeavours and collaborations, and in building the bonds that are the fabric of our relationships and our communities. I would like, in the course of this series of articles, to address NVC’s Mindfulness of Communication model – partly because it takes us deeper into this enquiry into the rūpa skandha, and partly because it will serve to give us an overview of how the five skandhas and the Five Wisdoms are woven into the fabric of our daily lives.