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’.