This is Article No. 5 in the ‘Buddhism’ series.
It is also the first of six articles, which explore the ’emptiness’, or non-personal nature, of the ‘Form’, or ‘conceptual form’, aspect of our cognitive-perceptual experience – that which Buddhist tradition calls the rūpa skandha. Together these articles make up a single longer article, or six-part mini-series of articles, which are best read in order. When all these articles are published, you will be able to click on the titles below to access the other parts.
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 1: Thinking and Wisdom
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 4: Mindfulness and Emptiness
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 5: The Heart Sutra
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 6: Equanimity and Being
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 Buddhism, 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.
In this enquiry we are also blessed to have the perspective of Carl Jung (1875 – 1961), who was a keen student of Buddhism, and 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 very profound psychological typology 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, that image is often 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 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 come under the broad heading of 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. Padmasambhava’s teachings in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead), make it very clear that this was the Buddha’s intention, because they show us the rūpa skandha as an egoic reflection of that ultimate degree of mental clarity and objectivity that is described as the 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 this 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 quite far back in the course of Buddhist history.
There is a clear logic to my assertion that ‘Form’ needs to include ‘conceptual form’. The rūpa skandha is associated with the Mirror-Like Wisdom, which is regarded in Mahayana Buddhist tradition as the highest expression of the Thinking mind. 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 ……”, but was instead to read “In the Beginning was the Body ……”
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 also 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’ (shunyatā), 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 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 3D digital 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 key skandhas – perhaps the two most obvious ones out of five separate components that combine to create our experience of the body. In regards to the body, we need to remember that, in this context, we are stepping out of the scientific materialist paradigm and 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 manifestly present, but recognised as ’empty’, or non-personal.
Consciousness and its Cognitive-Perceptual Functions
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. This recognition is made very much easier when we know what the word rūpa is referring to in our experience.
We need to acknowledge firstly, that rūpa, or ‘Form’ is often used somewhat confusingly, both 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 data that passes through vijñāna (Consciousness). 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 and the cognitive-perceptual data that these generate, is a powerful idea, which can be seen as 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 ‘Form’, (i.e. rūpa). A focus on the four cognitive-perceptual functions and the apparently very real ‘self’ that they conjure up, may not be the best place to start if we are seeking to recognise emptiness. On the other hand, an enquiry into the empty nature of the vijñāna skandha (Consciousness), and a recognition that Consciousness is not subjective but objective, and not personal but collective, is for many the key point of entry into wisdom.
Tradition suggests that rūpa may be a good starting point for enquiry into the nature of the mind, because it is so clear that most thought-forms of the mind are insubstantial and conditioned, either by our previously internalised thought structures, and by the intellectual landscape of our family, group, tribe, or culture. The ‘Form of the Body’ however, is a very subtle thought-form. It is certainly not either equivalent to the body, or sufficient to define the body, and it may, at least at first, be difficult to see ‘the Form of the body’ as empty. Indeed ‘the body’, as the complex sensory vehicle around which our various subtle bodies are arranged, is much better associated with the vedanā skandha – if we were trying to identify a single skandha with which it has most affinity. We would do much better however, not to identify the body with any particular skandha at all – and should recognise instead that the somatic experience that we call ‘the body’ involves a collective co-creation of all four of the cognitive-perceptual functions.
When we close our eyes in meditation, the mental idea or image of our physical body is indeed rūpa, or ‘Form’. If we are completely honest with ourselves however, we find that the sensations (vedanā skandha) within the internal space of the body, simply do not correspond to the clear boundaries that the structural, conceptual ‘Form of the body’ (rūpa skandha) leads us to assume. The rūpa skandha, it would seem, is only the doorway to the experience of the body. The body experience is bigger on the inside than it is on outside – much more like a cloud of sensations (vedanā skandha), and without the clear boundaries that we imagine on the basis of external observation of the Form of the body (rūpa skandha). This a key understanding if we wish to go deep in meditation, and are serious about meditation as a path to wisdom.
The mandala wisdom tells us that we can begin our enquiry at any point in the mandala – with whichever Skandha-Wisdom polarity speaks most strongly to our condition in the moment. There are however, advantages to particular starting points and there are great advantages to being very systematic and comprehensive in our enquiry – making sure to examine all of the cognitive-perceptual functions, and to notice the way they relate to each other. The more tangible realm of Sensation, or vedanā, which is associated in Indian-Himalayan tradition with the Earth Element, may be a good place to begin or some people, while others will more easily recognise emptiness in the flowing and transitory nature the volitional energies (samskaras skandha), which are associated in Indian-Himalayan tradition the Air Element. Others will want to start with the evaluative discrimination of the samjñā skandha, which is associated in Indian-Himalayan tradition with the Fire Element. As I have tried to emphasise previously, meditation is about experiencing ourselves fully – it is about becoming more fully and comprehensively embodied and conscious. 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 subtle dimensions of felt experience associated with the other three cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness.
Like vedanā, rūpa is ultimately all-encompassing and inseparable from the other skandhas, 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. We eventually recognise that our only path to true objectivity is to dis-identify from the conceptualising rūpa skandha – and we do this by resting ‘as’ the empty vijñāna skandha, which is the non-personal field of Consciousness in which all the other skandhas arise.
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 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 regard the Buddhist teachings of archetypal Hell Realms as a key to our understanding of the rūpa skandha, and the egoic Thinking mind. Please consider reading my previous article on the Hell Realms – here. We need to regard this imagery as archetypal psychology – not just as Buddhist cosmology. When we begin to understand that the victims and persecutors in the Buddhist Hell Realms as aspects of ourselves, we become deeply motivated to see through the identifications that sustain the punishment and the misery.
When we start to see the violent and dishonest capabilities of the Thinking mind, and the way it accumulates an egoic residue within us (the poisonous ‘defilement’, or klesha, of dvesha, or hatred, in Buddhist tradition) 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. This simple act of turning our attention to that which is looking – to Consciousness itself – and resting as that, noticing its Mirror-Like qualities of stainless purity, stillness, and non-reactivity, 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 can approach it more closely by taking Consciousness as our foundation and our reference point. If we are not actively seeking the Mirror-Like Wisdom we will never find Objectivity – and worse – we are likely to find ourselves advocating violence, either in gross or subtle forms.
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 – we are swimming in it like fish in polluted water. 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 reason 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, undertaken by supposedly liberal social-democratic states, using Islamic jihadist ‘moderate rebels’, private armies and fascist militias as pawns in their inhuman game.
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 he or she faces. 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 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 rūpa skandha for what it is.
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 unnecessary.
This is very similar to the ‘finger pointing to the moon’ teaching that I mentioned in my previous article (here). 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 for their own sake, or to mistake our understanding of the concepts for Wisdom itself. He wanted us always to continually extend ourselves beyond the concepts through self-enquiry, and always seek to recognise 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. We need to stretch ourselves to experientially grasp the illusive truths that are 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 familiarise ourselves with and perhaps memorise them, so that we have a basis for contemplation. This stage of knowledge is very 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 have 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
In this ‘Buddhism’ series of articles, I am starting to investigate the important Mahayana Buddhist formulation that is the Five Wisdoms. The Mahayana came to see Wisdom as five-fold, with an aspect of Wisdom for each of the skandhas, once the emptiness of each of the skandhas is realised. At the current stage therefore it is probably useful for us to briefly backtrack, and acknowledge the historical Buddha. While he would certainly have recognised all the Five Wisdoms, he also 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 (prajñā).
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 most often viewed as 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 this original single Wisdom (prajñā) that the Buddha spoke of.
One of places where we see the archetypal pattern of the later Five Wisdoms, 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 (rūpa skandha) of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, while being ultimately ’empty’ like its antecedent roots in the historical Buddhas teachings, was a logically consistent development of the earlier conceptual framework.
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, which came to represented by the male Buddha Amitabha and the female Buddha Pandaravarsini. I have expanded on this association in a previous article here.
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 patterns, dynamics and motivations, which drive us, or appear to hold us back, in the spiritual life. This is the All-Accomplishing Wisdom that came to be represented by the male Buddha Amoghasiddhi and the female Buddha Green Tara. For more on this see my previous article here.
The Buddha taught that that recognition of the emptiness of the vedanā skandha was the key to entering deep absorption states in 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’, only to be experienced by an elite few, 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. This aspect of wisdom is associated with the male Buddha Ratnasambhava and the female Buddha Mamaki, who are also associated with Appreciative Joy, Generosity and Embodiment. For more on these themes see my previous articles here, here, and here.
To read the next part of this four part mini-series – The Rūpa Skandha – Part 2: The Mirror-Like Wisdom – please click here.