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A New Approach to the Buddhist Concept of the Five Skandhas by Rodger Ricketts

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1) Form Aggregate, gzugs kyi phung po, rupa skandha
2) Feeling Aggregate, tshor ba'i phung po, vedana skandha
3) Conception Aggregate, 'du shes kyi phung po samjna skandha
4) Formation Aggregate)], 'du bye kyi phung po, samskara skandha
5) Consciousness Aggregate, rnam par shes pa'i phung po, vijnana skandha

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First, for example, let’s look at the traditional perspective on the Five Skandhas as presented by Lama Surya Das at the Monday night Dzogchen sitting group in Cambridge, Ma., on May 22, 1995. (Edited for space)
“…The Buddha said we are the five skandhas. The word skandha is a tough word to translate. It means heap, aggregate, or component of individuality….

First, form: Solidity, earth element, shape.

Second, feelings: Sensations. Not just emotional feelings, but also physical sensations and so on. Whatever we feel.

The third skandha is perceptions: Experiences, like thoughts, sights, sounds, and so on. In the second and third skandhas, in feelings and perceptions, liking and not liking arise. That's when the whole problem, the whole duality, the whole push and shove starts. The entire, exhausting treadmill or roller coaster of ups and downs.

The fourth is will or volition: Intending to do things. That's where karma comes in. Liking and not liking arise, and then from that devolves reactions. Reactions rather than freedom and proactively.

Our form feels things, perceives things this way or that way, liking or not liking. Then actions or intentions push or pull, trying to get more, get less, ignore it, or get away from it. Avoidance, denial, greed, demandingness, attachment, and so on, equals dissatisfaction and misery.

And fifth is consciousness, or as Buddhism says, consciousnesses: States of mind.

That's what we are, according to the enlightened perspective of Buddha. You can then see that all of the skandhas, these heaps, these piles, are bunches of stuff themselves. Like a pile of sand, a whirling composite of forces. There's no fixed entity anywhere. Ask yourself that simple, utterly profound question. Who or what am I? Who is experiencing one's own experience, right now, this very moment? Feel it, sense it; don't just think and analyze. Who is present, in yourself, right now?! Where is your immortal soul?

This analysis leads to the realization of the three characteristic marks of existence: Anicca, anatta, and dukkha -- impermanence, ungovernable or not-self, and dissatisfactoriness. We can see that the body is anicca, impermanent, changeable. This is not dogma; this is just how it is, at least according to the enlightened vision of Buddha.

I think this five skandha scheme is a very interesting one, in the sense that it can begin to raise some very interesting questions and help us dig deeper, rather than just having a vague, amorphous kind of understanding. We are individual. We are each responsible for ourselves and our karma and our relations. Our individuality is comprised of these five aggregates or skandhas. We can work with that. It is actually an expression of the Buddha-nature".

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Included in Lama Suyra Das' talk are many of the important concepts used by the Buddha to describe his perspective after his Awakening. Now let us look at Sue Hamilton’s different scholarly interpretation of the Five Skandhas which I think gives a more profound understanding of the Buddha’s Awakening and teachings.

In the book, Prof. Hamilton gives the traditional exposition of the Five Skandhas and explains,
 “…the point being made in most of such contexts tends to be that it is a mistake to identify with any of the khandhas, to think that any one of them is one’s essential self….We read that the Buddha denied in various ways that any one of the khandhas was one’s soul. He pointed out that since one knows one’s body, sensations, apperceptions, volitional activities and consciousness are all changing and impermanent, so any tendency to identify with any one of them brings the psychological sense of unsatisfactoriness; … an altogether negative state of mind". This exposition is clear also in Lama Surya Das’ talk.

Prof. Hamilton goes on to write, of which I quote at length, “So we know what the khandhas are not: they are not the self in any essentialist sense because they are impermanent. But if, as I have suggested, dukkha is better understood as the fact of experience, in what way are the khandhas synonymous with that?

…In his first sermon, when they are referred to for the first time, the Buddha uses the term collectively, and it is only in other contexts that the five khandhas are enumerated and referred to individually. …I believe that it is important that it is collectively that one is most likely to grasp the point of the teaching in the first sermon. … I believe this is particularly important not just because this teaching is called the first sermon of the Buddha, but because the four Noble Truths refer to the very same points the Buddha attended to at his Enlightenment.

The order of the khandhas is never explained, but they are almost invariably … in the order given above; that is body, sensations, apperception, volitional activities, consciousness. The first important point to note about body is the one I have mentioned before; that what is being referred to here is the living body. It is not a matter of the body qua matter that is relevant, but that one’s body is the physical locus of one’s experience. As such it provides and is characterized by certain features that are collectively represented by what are called the four great elements; earth, wind, fire and water. Sometimes a fifth great element, space, is added to the usual four…

Each of these great elements, including space, is said to have both an internal and external aspect. …And that both internal and external are similarly described serves to emphasize that the principals are generically applicable across what is often seen as the subjective/objective divide.


A central feature of the body is that it is the locus of the senses, which further emphasizes that what is being referred to here is the living functioning body and not just its substance. … (Mind) … is the faculty, or sense, which filters and collates all sensory data so that it can actually ‘make sense’ to us. In other words, when, for example, one’s eye comes in contact with a visible object (one’s sense organ with its corresponding sense object), it is the ‘mind’ that translates that event into one of the sense of seeing…. In fact without mind co-ordinating our sensory experiences all one has is a mass of sensory data arising from contacts between sense organ(s) and sense(s) objects.

…The body is thus crucial to our experience of the world as it provides us with the sense organs which act as the doors through which the objective world in its entirety is accessed by us. …

It is to these sophisticated mental activities that the remaining four khandhas refer. Though given last in the list, consciousness is the sine qua non of all the activity of the khandhas. …it was only consequential actions that are relevant to understanding karma

Consciousness, then, is the awareness that accompanies the operation of the khandhas as a whole. … Awareness only is awareness because one is aware of something. However vague the object of awareness may be, one cannot be aware without one: at the very least one is aware of being aware. This point is particularly crucial in the context of the Buddhist teachings for two reasons. First, … it emphasizes that what is meant by consciousness is … the activity of being conscious and not some kind of entity that one carries round with one as a sort of mind-stuff. Second, the goal of Buddhism is insight of the Truth and not some kind of trance. …in Buddhism one is aiming for knowledge of a radically different kind from our normal day to day knowledge, all knowledge must be of something. …the process to which the khandhas refer is precisely the process by which we know anything at all. Awareness, as the sine qua non of the entire process, is called the khandha of consciousness. The remaining three khandhas explain the way incoming sensory data, preliminarily filtered through the sixth sense, become, when coupled with awareness, different sorts of knowledge.

As the apperceptive process develops, what one is actually doing is imposing categories onto unclassified data: the experience becomes more and more clearly defines and identified. And in the process of doing this, each more clearly defined and identified aspect of what one is experiencing is separated from others. What one is doing in this process, according to the texts, is making manifold and naming what one is experiencing.

The significance of this in the wider context of the Buddhist teachings as a whole … (is) that all things within our cyclical experience are dependently originated. It is this that underpins their impermanence. But, … a feature of our ordinary experience (is) that we identify things individually and we assume that each individual thing is independent from other individual things, and {{Wiki|psychologically]] continue to anticipate their permanence. …In fact our entire conceptual framework is underpinned by the assumption that apparent plurality of the world in which we live is transcendentally real – that is, as it is in itself, independently of our seeing it: independently, period, indeed. But according to Buddhist teachings, this is not the case: rather, such a way of viewing the world is not seeing things as they really are. Identification, then, is a process of making manifold what is in fact dependently originated, and is a feature of the pre-Enlightened way of seeing things.

…we cannot know what it is (Enlightened understanding) without experiencing it because it involves the reorientation of all our conceptual categories. …Apperception with ‘purified senses’ is a feature of insight, because it is cardinal to Buddhism that one knows that one knows. …Understanding them (khandhas) as individual physical and mental ‘parts’ … misses two crucial points. First, they operate collectively, and second, they represent one’s cognitive system: the apparatus by means of which we have all our experiences. They are what one needs to know about oneself if one is to achieve liberation from the cycle of lives as the Buddha did. … to understand the khandhas in the metaphorical sense of representing the entire human being. But this is not the same as stating that they are what the human being is comprised of.


experience is both cognitive and affective: both aspects are involved in one’s ‘cognitive lens’, or perception in the broad sense of knowing… through which we in fact have our experience in its entirety".

Prof. Hamilton's explanation of the Buddhist point of view of khandas finds support with the brain basis of consciousness model called the Unified Field Model as developed by John R. Searle and described in the book, Mind in Life by Evan Thompson. Thompson wrote, “According to this model (the unified field) the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience or conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness: “Conscious experiences come in unified fields. In order to have a visual experience, a subject has been conscious already, and the experience is a modification of the field” (Searle).