The 5 Skandhas

“Sole dominion over the earth, going to heaven, lordship over all worlds:

The fruit of stream entry excels them.” – Buddha

Buddhism’s true gift to the world lies in the thoroughness of its teachings which goes beyond even the advanced and highly developed Vedic systems from which it sprang, specifically, negating even the atman.  It’s analyzation of the five Skandhas or “aggregates” leaves little room for confusion about the nature of the path and values, above all, direct realization of the empty nature of our existence achieved through meditation.

The five skandhas are:

  1. Form
  2. Sensation
  3. Perception
  4. Mental Formation
  5. Consciousness

It’s important to note that long term meditation will take us to stream entry without any doctrine whatsoever.  We will join the stream by virtue of silence and we will come to realize the emptiness of these five things and, indeed, what appear to be myriad things, simply by aligning ourselves with pure reality.  However, for us in the modern world with complicated, active lives, understanding and reflecting on these five aggregates which create our inner world is a sort of antidote to confusion.  If it arises in form, sensation, perception, mental formations (memory) or even consciousness then it is subject to birth and death and hence absolutely empty, although it may be relatively real.

When contemplating emptiness, we are using the mind to understand the mind.  When we are sitting, silent reality illuminates the mind.  Both are important for progress before and after stream entry.  Moreover, they become much more important after stream entry because this contemplation allows us to see when we are ‘stuck.’  Stuck just means that we have recurring things, usually tough mental formations or memories, which ensnare us in the delusion that they are inherently true when they can also be realized as empty.  If we stop and try to see their arising, staying and passing away then we can become aligned with reality through this realization.

This is where Buddhism breaks with other religions and becomes more a system of analyzation of our existence.  Rather than trying to summon up religious or doctrinal fervor based on some doctrine or idea, we are sitting back and looking at the origin of the mental formation and allowing it to pass.  In this way, we overcome ignorance which clings to ideas and we are no longer trapped in the mind.  It is not that we don’t understand the ideas, it is just that we now know what they are – ideas.  It is the same for form, sensation, perception and consciousness.

An understanding of what emptiness is is also crucial to our contemplation of the Skandhas.  Emptiness is form and form is emptiness.  Emptiness only arises with something.  And everytime something arises, it is inherently empty.  We don’t go looking for emptiness apart from something because this is like looking for horns on a rabbit or the child of a barren woman (i.e., fantasy stuff).  We see something right here and now and in that something we recognize emptiness.  In this way we do not become stuck looking for some other reality apart from this reality, right here, right now.  When people speak of other worlds and souls and Gods and the like, they are speaking in mental formations.  These formations dissolve eventually and exhibit the same quality of emptiness as everything in the universe.  We may see this clearly in our meditation yet still fail to discern it.

For example, I was raised a Christian.  Whether I wanted to or not, I approached the path from a Christian point of view and was naturally drawn to features of the path of devotion found in yogic literature.  These ideas were very strong medicine for me because they gave me the strength to seek God largely to the exclusion of the mundane world because far smarter people than me told me it was possible.  Because of the power of my belief and devotion to the idea of enlightenment, constant practice was possible and even (sometimes 🙂 ) enjoyable.  However, I was stuck on this belief in something to find that wasn’t right under my nose.  My search became a search for some unseen source from which manifestation springs – the soul, the subtle body, pure consciousness, karmic imprints…  something.  It had to be from somewhere “greater” than myself.  Then, after I “wore my ass out” as Ken Wilber puts it, I said “alright, what the hell am I doing here?  What am I missing?”  When I looked back over the teachings offered by the vibrant, living organism that is Buddhism, I said “hey, it’s right here.  It’s the 5 Skandhas, you dumbass!”  No matter how high a mental formation, no matter how charged or seemingly “beyond” mental formations these beliefs were, they were ultimately (drumroll…):  Mental formations.  Even after dramatic experiences of the emptiness of form and the seemingly “final” insights into emptiness, we often find it difficult to see what remains to be done and kill the Buddha, wherever we may find her.

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