|THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH
The Five Skandhas
What is Dukkha? How does suffering come about? In his teaching of the First Noble Truth, the Buddha linked the concept of an enduring and separate self to the experience of Dukkha. In the 'first turning of the Dharma wheel', his discourse of the Noble Truths, there is a reference to the 'self' as a bundle of affinities that come together anew in each moment. It says:
' in short, suffering [Dukkha] is the five categories of clinging objects.
That the 'self' is a collection of skandhas or aggregates is a central Buddhist teaching. The five Skandhas are: form, feeling, mental reaction, formulation, and consciousness.
The first skandha, form (skr. rapa), is the material shape of things. This is the human body and shape. It includes our genetic potential, the cascades of neurons in the brain, the flood of hormones that induce action. In short, it describes the unique way you and I come forth. We tend to claim ownership of our body. 'My body', we say, or 'my arm'. And yet this body today is not the body of twenty years ago, or even of yesterday. It changes and also our experience of it changes. We tend to think of ourselves as separate from everything around us. We see everything inside the skinbag is 'I' and everything outside as 'other'. However, there are intimations in everyday life that this is not the whole story; especially in moments of intimacy. When we embrace our child or lie entangled with our lover, where does 'self' end and 'other' begin' The boundaries blur. When we sit in zazen, we can sometimes have a similar experience where the edges of self soften and expand. For a moment, there is no 'inside' or 'outside'.
The second skandha, feeling (skr. vendana), is the 'taste' of an experience. The organism becomes aware of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations. Some sensations arise in the body, others arise in the mind. Actually, Buddhist thought recognizes six senses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. All the senses respond to stimuli.
Volition, the will, is a neutral mind state and is seen as one of the most important in this group of cetasikas. Will is the tendency that gives rise to action. For example: if you step onto wet, cold grass, an inclination may arise in you to step onto a warm, dry patch, or to go back inside. It's important to remember that will, as part of formulations, is connected to karma. It is said that the will or intention behind the act determines the karmic seed. Intentions shape our actions of body, speech and mind. Each of our intentions or decisions carries a karmic tail that affects our life and the lives of many others, present and future. For example, the way our ancestors through the ages chose to pair up and mate, shaped our own genetic and cultural heritage. The decision to make New Zealand their home that our ancestors or we ourselves took, will give rise to new configurations even long after our death, as generation after generation arises.
Consciousness also takes a hand in choosing our sense experiences. This is easy to see when you take a look at moods. Moods are persistent states of emotion in which we can be stuck for hours or days. When we are in a mood, the mind chooses memories, stories, and appropriate sense experiences to prolong the mood. For example, if you are in a depressed mood, your mind will select sad memories and your senses are most likely to cling to sense experiences that support the mood. For example, a person in an elated mood may rejoice at the sight of rhododendron blossoms, whereas a sad person may catch sight of the one blossom on the bush where the bloom has faded and the petals are falling.
The mind creates a perspective on each experience and reinforces our grand stories of 'self'. Sadly, we cling to even the painful stories about our 'self'; the fact that they are familiar and that our experiences seem to confirm them gives us a strange sense of comfort.
All five Skandhas work in conjunction with each other. Form, the physical body, is animated by consciousness and the other three skandhas describe the interactions between mind and body. Sensation, perception and formulation are the ways that the information that comes through the six senses of the body is processed and solidified into concepts and stories by consciousness. When we study the 'self', that is, the person we think we are, we notice that we are a bundle of affinities that change from moment to moment. We find that we are a process, not a 'thing' and that there is no 'self' to be found who could be called the owner of this process!
As human beings, we experience a pervasive and haunting sense of loneliness, even when we are close to others. This is because the 'self' that centres around 'I', 'me', 'myself', is cut off and separated from all other beings. Separation is built into the 'self' as we experience it. The stories we weave accentuate and confirm the separation. In his teaching of the First Noble Truth, the Buddha teaches that the five skandhas are the source of Dukkha if we cling to them as a 'self'. This means that the very things we identify with are the basis for our suffering. Everything is impermanent and is unable to offer us complete and lasting satisfaction. When we experience the 'self' as a fixed entity, we are continually on a collision course with reality, because, as the teaching of the self as skandhas shows, the self is a process that comes together anew in each moment. When we cling to the skandhas and use them to reinforce our idea of a separate self, we suffer because the 'self' is empty - there is nothing that can be clung to.
When we let go of our narrow sense of 'self', we awaken to who we truly are. With the process of awakening, body and mind drop away. At that moment there is nothing at all to refer to. When Asan, a student of Hakuin heard the morning rooster, her mind suddenly opened. She wrote this verse:
|© Mary Jaksch 2004
No reproduction without the authors permission please.