This is Article No. 7 in the ‘Buddhism’ series.
It is also the third 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 3: The Body
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 4: Mindfulness and Emptiness
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 5: The Heart Sutra
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 6: Equanimity and Being
Bringing Awareness ‘Into the Body’
I find the notion of Being, which I introduced in my last article (here) 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 first of the ‘ Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ and corresponds with the rūpa skandha. In that article, I also pointed out the way the Buddha, not only took the existing ancient Indian ‘Five Skandhas’ teaching and gave his own interpretation of it – but adapted the same five-fold enquiry framework in the creation of his ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ model. The diagram below shows the correspondences between the skandhas and ‘Foundations’.
The implicit choice on the part of the Buddha, to address the rūpa skandha, or ‘Form’, or Thinking aspect of the mind, by the advice to bring awareness into the ‘Form of the Body’ (Kaya) is deeply significant, and has, for me, a wonderfully contemporary feel about it. Many modern psychotherapists, heirs to the various traditions within psychoanalysis and humanistic psychotherapy, would say the same. We could even think of this first ‘Foundation of Mindfulness’ as the first ‘exercise’ at the Buddha’s Mindfulness workshop. The first step in his ’embodied Consciousness’ training – in the Buddha’s systematic and comprehensive program of personal, transpersonal and spiritual healing – was to ‘bring awareness into the body’ by being aware of our body’s position in space as we go about our lives.
‘Bringing awareness into the body’ does not stop there however – with the rūpa skandha and the first ‘Foundation of Mindfulness’, which is kaya, or Mindfulness of ‘the Form of the Body’. It is important to understand, that what the Buddha is addressing in his ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ framework, 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’ experience. 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’ (kaya), and then 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. We would do well perhaps, to think of ‘the form of the body’ (rūpa / kaya), not as ‘the body’ but as our doorway into the body-mind – our doorway into that deeper and fuller experience of ourselves which can be spoken of in terms of ‘ the somatic’, or of ’embodiment’. The form of the body is the venue for, and the starting point for, our exploration – and while is the apparent container of our somatic process, it is, more importantly, itself contained by Consciousness.
The Water Element – the Downward Movement into Embodied Consciousness
The mandala wisdom of Vajrayana Buddhism gives us a treasury of precious understandings in the way it shows us connections between the rūpa skandha; Mindfulness of the Form of the Body (kaya); the brahmavihāra of Equanimity (upekshā); the qualia of Being; the Mirror-Like Wisdom; the Mental Body; the Hara Chakra; and the Eastern Quadrant of the mandala. This group of associations is often taken as the starting point in meditative enquiry, and there are several reasons for this – like the association of the eastern direction with the rising sun and the first part of the day. One of the most important reasons is in the fact that the rūpa skandha is associated with the Water Element in Indian-Himalayan tradition. We have the idea, in Indian culture, that the Water element is associated with bathing, cleansing and meditating at the beginning of the day, when the environment are relatively quiet and still. But there is a perhaps even more important idea – that Water is the downward-moving Element.
It is useful to briefly outline here, how the Five Wisdoms (and therefore also the five skandhas) can be viewed though the lens of the Indian-Himalayan Element symbolism. As implied above, the Mirror-Like Wisdom is symbolised by Water, which is a descending movement of psychological-somatic energy – a downward movement from the intangible and energetic, to the actual, material and practical; from aspiration and intention, to concrete realisation; and from compassionate impulse, to generous effective action.
I shall be talking in a future article about how the Wisdoms work clockwise as a creative cycle in which Needs, aspirations and energetic potentialities (Air Element / samkaras skandha) recognised by the perceptual function of Intuition and by the All-Accomplishing Wisdom are planned by creative processes that involve Objective Thinking, clear communication and Mirror-Like Wisdom (Water Element / rūpa skandha), are given practical and concrete sensory expression (Earth Element / vadanā skandha) in ways that are informed by the Equalising Wisdom. Next, in Indian-Himalayan tradition, comes the Fire Element (samjñā skandha), which symbolises those values-based conversations, empathetic human connections, and perhaps even healing meditative practices that complete the cycle – emotionally renewing us, and not only connecting us with our values and our discernment (Discriminating Wisdom) but renewing our vision of what it is driving us, and of what we want to create (Air Element again). This renewal of the clarity of our motivation, and our compassionate recognition of the Needs at play in the situation, is associated with the All-Accomplishing Wisdom – so, we are ready to begin the cycle again.
It is worth briefly noting that important drivers of the creative process as it is symbolised by the mandala, are found in the combination of the downward-moving Water energy in the east the mandala, and the upward-moving Fire energy in the west. In the east, there is the rūpa skandha and the descending Water Element manifesting as clear-headed logical decision-making that arises from Objectivity – which ultimately stems from the Mirror-Like Wisdom and Equanimity (upekshā). The creative process cannot be balanced and sustained however, without that emotional guidance system that is evaluative discrimination – the samjñā skandha and the ascending Fire Element – which finds highest expression in the Discriminating Wisdom and Loving Kindness (mettā / maitri).
Beyond the ‘Form’ of Words – Metaphor and Symbolism
In these articles, I have generally avoided talking about the symbolism of the Elements, partly because of the differing Element associations between Western and Indian-Himalayan tradition, but also because people tend to fail to recognise the Elements as archetypes, and want to think of them only as physical elements. This is another example of our tendency towards ‘literalism’ – which is an aspect of our failure to recognise the emptiness of the rūpa skandha. Words carry meaning as if it is enfolded inside of them – the meaning of a word depends on its context, and in the context of spiritual discourse, words usually have to be very carefully unpacked. We often fail to see that not only are the words we use for the Elements symbols in themselves, as all words are, but that they are also archetypal symbols – pointers to worlds of meaning that are implicit.
The Elements contain a world of meaning enfolded within them in two ways: they work as a hermetic code – they have meanings attributed to them by the Buddhist cultural context; and they also speak directly to our imaginal faculty directly. These two are connected – knowing the code sensitises us, and allows our imaginal faculty to open and resonate with the meaning that the Elements carry.
When the Buddha shared his compassionate vision of human beings as lotuses, he was speaking in metaphor – the symbolic meaning was two layers down – enfolded within the images. Beings are not literally lotuses, but the poetry of the Buddha’s imagination in the Ayacana Sutta tells us so much about how the Buddha saw human beings – and about who the Buddha was. The lotus imagery tells us perhaps, that as one who sees with the ‘Eye of Awakening’, the Buddha saw all human beings as beautiful, vulnerable, and responsive; always inherently aspirational; always growing and unfolding their potential; always reaching up towards the sun of true fulfilment – and capable of a clean, unstained perfection despite having their roots in the mud and slime of the human condition. We are given a glimpse through the Buddha’s use of metaphor and symbolism, of his great compassion and his wonderful intelligence, thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
The Elements as Archetypal Symbols
It is helpful to recognise that the physical elements in ourselves and in our world are an appearance only – that they are, as modern science now recognises, ’empty’ and transitory ‘Forms’ continuously arising out of the Quantum field and disappearing back into it. Additionally however, there is a need for us to differentiate our Thinking function (rūpa skandha), so that we come to recognise the Elements as archetypal symbols – recognising that the Elements effect us as symbols, and participate in our world as symbols. The elements of our ‘real’ world have a capacity to connect us with the deeper Elements in our inner world. Recognised as symbols, they can even connect us to archetypal powers in the imaginal world of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – and to suprapersonal forces that can transform and liberate us. The ultimate nature of mind is as likely to be found in the poetry of the Mahayana imagination as it is in Quantum Physics or Psychology.
In the context of meditative enquiry, the movement down out of identification with the Thinking mind (rūpa skandha) usually leads us first into an experience of the mental stillness of Equanimity and Being, and then into the bodily-felt experience of Appreciative Joy that is associated with samadhi, and with the ’empty’ vedanā skandha, or Sensation (Earth Element). The downward movement of the Water Element therefore, as well as cleansing us – as if we were under a gentle waterfall of pure refreshing water – also symbolically describes a transition that is foundational in meditation practice. This is the transition from Mindfulness of ‘the Form of the Body’ (rūpa / kaya) to Mindfulness of the rich and complex world of vedanā, which includes all the subtle somatic sensations in the interior space of the body.
The Five Skandhas and Embodied Consciousness
Implicit in all Buddhist meditation and Mindfulness practice is the goal of achieving what we may call embodied Consciousness, or Presence – 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 five aspects of a dynamic mind-body appearance or process. They present a non-personal mind-body structure, which is capable of functioning completely coherently – but only if we rest ‘as’ embodied Consciousness, and release our habitual personalisation of that experience. The very same dynamic structure shows itself to be extremely incoherent and dysfunctional, when we experience it through the egoic illusion of separate self-hood. This paradox was the core of the Buddha’s message – that our personalising identification with Consciousness and its four cognitive-perceptual functions (the five skandhas) causes psychological dis-integration and contraction, and all manner of unnecessary suffering. Thankfully, we can release ourselves from that suffering by resting as Consciousness, by beginning to become truly Mindful, and by recognising the transitory and non-personal nature of everything that is happening.
This is why I like to use the ‘subtle bodies’ model of the body-mind, which we find in Tibetan tradition. It gives us a way of start to conceptualise (rūpa skandha) our cognitive-perceptual experience in a non-personalising way – and in a way that acknowledges that everything is arising within Consciousness. For me, a key to this ’empty’, and systemic model of psychological functioning is the fact that the four cognitive-perceptual functions are reflected somatically as four ‘energy bodies’. These four are the ‘surface bodies’ in the larger system of seven nested energy fields that we often see presented in esoteric literature on spirituality and healing.
I would like to suggest that we do not have to worry about the other three even subtler bodies – the three outer ones – the work of transformation takes place in the four ‘surface bodies’, which correspond to the quadrants of the mandala. Essentially, the other three take care of themselves if we can learn to rest ‘as Consciousness’ and address the four ‘surface bodies’ – the four energy bodies that are associated with the cognitive-perceptual functions, and with the egoic self-illusion.
The mandala of the skandhas (shown above) shows us how the cognitive-perceptual functions are in pairs that are either dynamically opposed or dynamically integrated. The corresponding mandala of the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ (shown below), shows us the Buddha’s model of how Mindfulness practice can be most balanced and comprehensive, and also most profound and conducive to Insight (Skt: prajñā) and spiritual transformation, when we consciously associate that framework with the skandhas model – of Consciousness and its four cognitive-perceptual functions.
The mandala of the ‘surface bodies’ (below) shows us the correspondences between the skandhas and the four ‘surface bodies’ mentioned above. This ‘subtle bodies’ model, is usually associated with the hierarchical arrangement of the chakras in the trunk of the body (more on this below), but it is extremely useful to recognise that these somatic energies relate to each other dynamically in pairs of opposites in accordance with a mandala structure.
One of the distinguishing features of the Vajrayana aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, is its engagement with the nature of mind simultaneously though two general perspectives, which each, in different ways, highlight the body-mind’s ’empty’, or non-personal nature. We could call these two general perspectives: (1) mind as Consciousness; and (2) mind as energy.
Both of these perspectives are initially very difficult to grasp, but within these two general perspectives, the Vajrayana presents us with these two ’empty’, or ‘open system’, process frameworks that we have been referencing – two subtle conceptual forms that point to the dynamic and non-personal nature of the mind. Both of these are frameworks, far from affirming our personalisation of our experience, profoundly challenge it – and both can be represented graphically, or at least schematically. These two frameworks are (1) the mandala of Consciousness and its cognitive-perceptual functions; and (2) the hierarchy of the subtle bodies and chakras by which Consciousness is embodied.
Both of these frameworks can only ever be pointers to the nature of mind – not objective descriptions of it – but together they provide a strong platform from which we can engage in a rich and comprehensive process of meditative enquiry, and can begin to heal ourselves by releasing the klesha energies that sustain our egoic identifications.
Form as Somatic Structure – 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 lives, and by implication in the subtle bodies, of apparently separate individuals. Stupa symbolism tends to have become overlaid with other cultural elements that obscure the underlying archetypal pattern, but the physical structure of a stupa always points to five aspects of mind that we see in the mandala – in a particular hierarchical way, which I am going to be showing in a diagram below. Essentially the elements in the structure of a stupa (its square base; its rounded body; it conical section; its upturned crescent structure; and its spire at the top) can represent the five Wisdoms, or the Five Elements, but much more obviously they represent the hierarchical arrangement of the ‘surface bodies’ and their corresponding chakras.
This idea that a recognition of the ’empty’ and non-personal nature of the skandhas is always reflected somatically as an energetic coherence in the nested energy fields of the body-mind, is an important one. It goes hand-in-hand with the understanding of meditation is a process of emptying out the energetic residues of the egoic mind. These residues are traditionally referred to as the kleshas – the ‘defilements’, or ‘obscurations’. We flush these out by recognising the dynamic tensions in the somatic structure – resting as Consciousness and ‘holding’ those dynamic tensions. The axes of the mandala are our guide to recognising and embracing those tensions, but those tensions are located somatically in the field of the body – so we need the somatic model. It is by resting as Consciousness and holding those tensions that we accelerate the recovery of our internal coherence – and begin to recover our natural state.
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 very simple schematic graphic below, which is traditional in Buddhism, and which some will already be familiar with. This much simplified 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, which is more often seen in esoteric literature. These five hierarchically arranged somatic components – reflecting Consciousness and its cognitive-perceptual skandhas – are all we need. They provide a complete enough schematic map of the territory for us to begin to explore the inner world of the somatic – the experience of embodied Consciousness.
This basic hierarchical schematic also has the advantage of not attempting to go into detail about the anatomy of the bodies and chakras. Our meditative enquiry is a phenomenological one – one in which our interest is in the non-rational phenomena of our actual felt experience; not in some imagined ‘objective reality’ – that is likely to be a projection anyway. While these somatic structures are fundamental to our understanding, and have to be acknowledged, they are not ultimately knowable, or completely definable in any way. In approaching a phenomena that is as completely experiential as this, the minimum of conceptual speculation seems best – especially if we are using the somatic model as a guide to the ’empty’ nature of embodied Consciousness.
It is helpful however, to acknowledge seven general observations that we can make about the phenomena of the subtle body hierarchy:
(1) that there is hierarchy within the subtle bodies, such that the lower bodies that are closer to the physical are contained within the higher and deeper ones; and all are contained within Consciousness;
(2) that the subtle bodies interpenetrate each other, so their energies effect each other and cannot be completely separated;
(3) that the subtle bodies, being the somatic containers of the skandha energies, are more fundamental than the chakras;
(4) that the chakras are locations in the somatic fields at which the energetic state of each corresponding subtle body is most keenly felt;
(5) that the polarities (receptive or expansive; yin or yang) in the hierarchical arrangement of the subtle bodies (and chakras) will always appear to alternate – the four surface bodies therefore being, either yin, yang, yin, yang (in women); or yang, yin, yang, yin (in men);
(6) that the subtle bodies and chakras in women and men generally have opposite polarities – the Volitional Body and the Heart Chakra, for example, are usually receptive, or yin, in men, and expansive, or yang, in women; and
(7) that, the process of integration requires that we all, irrespective of our gender, ultimately need to familiarise ourselves with both the receptive (yin) and the expansive (yang) energies in each of the ‘surface bodies’.
As well as allowing us to locate the skandhas in the body, the subtle bodies and chakras model shows us the somatic energies of the body-mind as an arrangement of nested energetic fields, in which the more obvious field relating to the physical body is contained within, and profoundly affected by, a somatic field that may be called a Mental Body, which in turn are held within and interpenetrated by, the larger and subtler ones relating to the emotional and volitional dimensions. One we start to explore this experientially, it becomes clear that the structure (rūpa skandha) of the body-mind, or somatic-psychological energy system, can only be completely described by reference to both the mandala (with its two axes and its dynamic polarities) and the nested hierarchy of the subtle bodies and chakras.
The detail of the way these two structures combine is difficult to explain, and probably the best way to approach it is through a comprehensive exploration of the ten archetypal Buddhas of the Dharmadhātu Mandala – which can be found in a separate series of articles in this website. The first article in that Ten Archetypal Buddhas of the Mandala series can be found here, and brief introductory summaries of those articles can be found here.
This hierarchical arrangement of five shapes can also be associated with the Five Elements (Earth, Water, Fire Air, and Space); the Five Skandhas; the brahmavihāras; the Five Wisdoms; or even with 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’ on the top of a physical stupa monument). 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 apparently hierarchical ‘somatic structure’ 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 a recognition 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 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, 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. He is also saying that the apparently fixed and structured objects and persons in our world are better understood as open and dynamic systems and fluid and interactive processes that are inseparable from Consciousness – and that any appearance of fixity, or separateness, or ‘Form’ is only an illusion.
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’, non-personal, appearance arising in the ’empty’, non-personal, field of Consciousness.
Making these connections between the mandala of the skandhas, Foundations, and Wisdoms, can be a great gift to us as meditators. It is extremely helpful to have a way of locating the Wisdoms in the fields of the body – so that they are no longer abstractions, but felt experiences. We are also given a way to familiarise ourselves with Emptiness in the context of Mindfulness practice, and of meditation, or samādhi. When we make these connections we also come to understand the Buddha’s ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ framework as having several dimensions and levels – with much greater depths enfolded within model, than might appear when we first encounter it. At its deepest and most comprehensive, the Buddha’s ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ program should, most certainly, be seen as an insight practice. – and invites us to recognise that the roots of the ‘Foundations’ are in the ‘five skandhas‘ model.