This is Article No. 8 in the ‘Buddhism’ series.
This is also the fifth 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 4: Mindfulness and Emptiness
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 5: Dharma and Truth
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 6: Consciousness and Qualia
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 7: The Heart Sutra
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 8: Consciousness and Qualia
The Rūpa Skandha – Part 9: Equanimity and Being
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.