Part 2
The Five Skandhas

Mary Jaksch

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.
The third skandha, mental reaction (skr. sajña), classifies and labels our experiences. It is the thought that follows a sense experience. The way we tend to fall out of a sense experience into thought is very subtle and so ingrained that it is hard to bring to consciousness. Imagine, for a moment, that you are about to step onto wet, cold grass with bare feet. There is the sensation of cold and wet, and the sensation of the soles of the feet pressing against the grass. Immediately mental reaction happens and you label your experience. 'Oh, it's cold!' you think. Now imagine that there is rabbit excrement on the grass that you are going to step on. 'Ugh!' responds your mind. In fact, a negative response like this can actually precede and shape your sense experience. Mental reaction also assumes a continuation of an experience. For example, when you take a few steps on wet grass, mental reaction assumes that the next few steps will feel the same. This is rather like thinking, 'The grass is cold, etc. etc.'. We assume the sameness of the next sense experience and the following ones.
What happens to our experience when mental reaction sets in' We fall out of it! If you watch your experience closely, you will notice that as soon as feeling is followed by mental reaction, the actual sensation is dulled or even disappears. Suddenly the world is separated into 'I' and 'other'. We have separated from the experience itself. Mental reaction places the experience within the framework of the small sense of self.
The fourth skandha, formulation (skr. saskara), refers to the qualities of mental experience and includes the various mind-sets that are triggered by sensation, mental reaction and consciousness. Ancient Buddhism saw the emergence of very complex theories of how the mind works. Buddhagosa, who lived around the 4th century CE, elaborated the Buddha's teaching of the five skandhas and listed over fifty cetasikas or mind states, that belong to the fourth skandha. These include 'wholesome' mind states, such as compassion and generosity, tranquillity, and mindfulness and also 'unwholesome' mind states, such as aversion or hatred.

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.
Another aspect of formulation is what we call character. Impulse, will and emotions create the mindsets that mould our character. We say, 'I am shy' or 'I am passionate' and so on. It's like sticking labels onto ourselves that somehow explain and vindicate our actions. 'Character' becomes a role we play to the audience of those around us. And we try and avoid any thought, emotion, or action that seems 'out of character' and makes us 'fall out of role'. This limitation also contributes to Dukkha.
Emotions, as a part of the fourth skandha are highly complex mental formations. According to Sylvan Tomkin in his Affect Theory, there are nine distinct affects, i.e. biological mechanisms that trigger emotions. Each of these nine patterns is unique, reflecting changes in the central nervous system, the biochemical environment of the body, posture, muscles controlling face, and vocalization. When we experience an affect, our mind sets to work finding memories that resonate with it. Actually, an affect only lasts a few seconds. And an emotion lasts as long as we keep finding memories that continue to trigger that affect. This means that we have to work really hard to maintain a certain emotion; we have to continually recreate memories and spin stories to keep it going! When we drop our stories, the emotion subsides.

Consciousness (skr. vijñana) is the fifth and final skandha. It is the discriminating awareness that organises and interprets our experiences. Our actions of body, speech and mind, and our will offer consciousness something to cling to. For example, imagine that you are consumed by the wish to advance in your job. In such a case, your consciousness will tend to circle around this wish and spin stories about it and it will become a focus of preoccupation. It's useful to ask yourself, 'What is my focus of preoccupation?' An early sutra says :
Whatever one ponders and reflects on much, towards that is the inclination of the heart.
'Inclinations of the heart' refers to the stories we carry through our life. The grandest of these stories is that the 'self' is unchanging and that it is separate from the other myriad beings. But there are other stories that shape our life. Some popular stories in our Western culture are: 'I can't get anything right', 'Nobody loves me', 'Life isn't fair', 'I must be perfect to be loved' and so on. I am sure you can recognise one or the other of these stories.

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!
When we see the experience of 'self' as a bundle of affinities, we recognise self as a fluid process, coming together in each moment of experience. But, as human beings, we grasp at what we perceive as reality. We have a kind of vague understanding that this thing called 'I' somehow continues through all changes of life; but this is an illusion. There is an interesting take on this by New Zealand poet Kevin Ireland in an interview with Steve Braunias. Ireland is asked what it's like to consider poems written by him a long time ago. He says:
'it takes you by surprise because you can't ever enter that person who wrote those things. It's like a distant relative. I know I'm related by blood and locality, but I don't quite remember him. If he walked in the door now I'd wonder who the hell he was.
The original sutra says at the end of the paragraph on the First Noble Truth: ''in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects'. That is to say that Dukkha is inherent in our human experience of existence. Why is that?

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:
The fields, the mountains, the flowers,
and my body too are the voice of the bird
- what is left to be said to hear?

When we are completely intimate with our grief, our joy, our anger, or our fear—who is there left to experience dukkha?


© Mary Jaksch 2004

© Mary Jaksch 2004

No reproduction without the authors permission please.