The Five Skandhas, or, Sometimes you can’t see the Trees for the Forest

Forest Trees - Trees Forest


There is the argument of conventional wisdom; over yonder is the forest. Don’t get caught up in seeing the trees, or you’ll miss the forest! One of the challenges of Buddhism is to turn this around, to point to the forest and ask, “What is that?”, and not cease until we arrive at a conclusive answer. There is a spirit of vigorous and unrelenting inquiry involved in Buddhist phenomenology.

One might begin the contemplation of a forest as a forest, and then proceed to identify that as a grouping of trees, and then proceed to identify that further by taking into account that there are not only trees in the forest, but there are also flowers, and other flora, and animals, and insects, and soil, and oxygen, and sunlight, and minerals, and so on.

This begins to point to the teaching of interdependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda), which states that all dharmas (i.e. things/phenomena) arise in dependence upon other dharmas.

“If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.”

For the sake of convenience we say “forest”, but if we push beyond that, even just a little, it starts to break down.

Where can the forest be found?
Continue reading


Vajradhara and 84 Mahasiddhas

“According to the great Tibetan scholar Lama Taranatha (sixteenth to seventeenth century) in his ‘History of Buddhism in India’, Vajrayana Buddhism can already be located in the time of Nagarjuna (first to second century) in the jungles of India, among a small group of isolated and anonymous meditators who followed this path to realization. These masters, known as siddhas (‘perfected ones’), were practitioners of the unconventional traditions of highest or innermost tantras. According to Lama Taranatha, these masters passed their lineages of practice and realization to only one or perhaps a very few disciples. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche says that ‘the Tantras of the Inner Yanas, the highest teachings of Buddhism, were introduced into India under the strictest secrecy.’ By the eighth century, we hear of the existence of eighty-four mahasiddhas, or ‘great siddhas’, who lived throughout India, following the Vajrayana traditions, and who taught, performed wonders, and transmitted the Vajrayana teachings to chosen disciples. As we shall presently see, the siddhas played a central role in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, and subsequently Tibetan siddhas carried on the teachings of their Indian counterparts in the Tibetan environment down to the present.

“The siddhas were men and women who, in their pretantric lives, often found themselves in situations of great distress, dislocation, and suffering. For them, as for Gautama Buddha, ordinary life held no hope of relief and no ultimate promise of satisfaction. Typically, they encountered a guru who accepted them as disciples and admitted them into Vajrayana practice through the abhisheka, or initiation liturgy. Subsequently, they spent many years practicing intensively. Sometimes their practice was carried out in cremation grounds or in solitary retreat. At other times it was carried out in the world, but secretly. Tantric gurus were known for their uncompromising and even ruthless approach to the spiritual path. Not infrequently they would place their disciples in difficult or degraded circumstances to teach them the renunciation of comfort, status, and security, and to free their minds for the ultimate. Eventually, their tutelage complete, the disciples attained realization and themselves became known as siddhas.

“The siddhas often brought their realization back into the world, where they pursued ordinary lives as men and women lay practitioners, representing all levels of society, working as kings, scholars, blacksmiths, sweepers, and so on. In this way, they used ‘ordinary life’ as the vehicle for their teaching and the transmission of their lineages. The eighty-four siddhas sometimes remained anonymous, appearing as unexceptional, unspiritual people within conventional society. At other times they exhibited their realization in shocking and unconventional ways. Sometimes they were called crazy (nyonpa), referring to their uncompromising expression of ultimate wisdom and compassion within conventional society, behavior that seemed ‘crazy’ by ordinary standards.”

[From Indestructible Truth – The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism by Reginald Ray]

Attending to our Karma


“Buddhism, particularly in its Tibetan form, often contains ritual ceremonies, or pujas, directed toward various Buddha-figures or fierce protectors in order to help dispel obstacles and accomplish constructive purposes. Performing these ceremonies provides conducive circumstances for negative potentials to ripen in trivial rather than major obstacles, and positive potentials to ripen sooner rather than later. If we have built up overwhelmingly negative potentials, however, these ceremonies are ineffective in averting difficulties. Therefore, propitiating gods, spirits, protectors or even Buddhas is never a substitute for attending to our karma – avoiding destructive conduct and acting in a constructive manner. Buddhism is not a spiritual path of protector-worship, or even Buddha-worship. The safe direction of the Buddhist path is working to become a Buddha ourselves.”

[From Taking the Kalachakra Initiation by Alexander Berzin]

Children of the Victorious One

Arya Maitreya

Arya Maitreya

“Those whose seed is devotion towards the supreme vehicle,
whose mother is analytical wisdom generating the buddha qualities, whose abode is the blissful womb of meditative stability, and whose nurse is compassion, are heirs born to succeed the Muni.”

[From Buddha Nature – The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra by Arya Maitreya]

Teacher of Gods and Humanity

Buddha, Indra, Brahma

Buddha, Indra, Brahma

Śāsta deva-manusyānam – “teacher of gods and men (i.e. humanity)”. This is one of the titles of Buddha Shakyamuni. While many may be familiar with Buddha Shakyamuni’s role as a teacher for human beings, it is interesting to note that in traditional Buddhist cosmology, many of the the gods and goddesses (i.e. devas and devis) are themselves not fully liberated from samsara. Buddhadharma speaks of the Three Realms or Three Worlds (Trailokya); the Kāmaloka (Desire Realms), Rūpaloka (Form Realms), and Arūpaloka (Formless Realms). The Kāmaloka is further categorized into the Six Realms, thus:

Deva-gati, the God Realms

Asura-gati, the Titan Realms

Manusya-gati, the Human Realms

Tiryagyoni-gati, the Animal Realms

Preta-gati, the Hungry Ghost Realms

Naraka-gati, the Hell Realms

According to lamrim teachings, all of these six realms are samsaric in nature, meaning all six realms are tinged with dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness) to varying degrees. According to this view, while devas and devis (gods and goddesses) may live an incalculably longer existence than humans, and may enjoy pleasures and delights unheard of in the human realm, they too die, and by the force of their karma, may again take rebirth in one of the six realms.

When generating bodhicitta, Buddhist practitioners will often contemplate the various realms, and the forms of suffering related to them, and with the vast expanse of beings in mind, generate compassion for them all. It is also not uncommon for Buddhists to do practices to prevent them from taking rebirth in the god realms because this can be seen as a distraction from attaining full liberation and enlightenment (i.e. becoming a Buddha). The human realm is considered ideal because it is, in a sense, “mixed” in that there is both pleasure and pain, joy and suffering readily evident. This can awaken the intention to attain liberation. Comparatively, in the hell realms the suffering is so great and constant that it is extremely rare for a being in these realms to take up Dharma practice, and in the god realms, the joy is so great that practice is often neglected as well, and the fall from such an existence, the loss of the enjoyment of the god realms, often provokes deep suffering.

May all beings have happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free of suffering and its causes.
May all beings never be separated from bliss without suffering.
May all beings be in equanimity, free of ignorance, attachment and aversion.

Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi


“Bhikṣus, in regard to these three turnings and twelve motions of the Four Noble Truths, if they had not given birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi, then amongst all the devas, māras, brahmās, śramaṇas, and brāhmaṇas who hear the Dharma, I could not have achieved liberation, gone beyond, and departed. I also would not have had self-realization of the attainment of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi. Yet I have, from the three turnings and twelve motions of the Four Noble Truths, given birth to vision, wisdom, understanding, and Bodhi. Amongst the devas, māras, brahmās, śramaṇas, and brāhmaṇas who hear the Dharma, I have gone beyond and achieved liberation, and have had self-realization of the attainment of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi.”

[From the Saṃyukta Āgama, 379: Turning the Dharma Wheel]

The Six Paramitas



“One fulfills one’s bodhisattva vow through acting to benefit beings. Since this kind of activity runs against the deeply engrained habitual patterns of our usual approach, practices need to be given that unlock our compassion. The most important set of bodhisattva practices are the six paramitas. Paramita means ‘transcendent action’ and refers to practices that, in being directed to others, transcend ego. These transcend ego also in the sense that their energy flows ultimately from the selfless buddha-nature within.”

[From The Indestructible Truth by Reginald Ray. 2000.]

The Six Paramitas:

Generosity (Dana-Paramita)
Discipline (Shila-Paramita)
Patience (Kshanti-Paramita)
Exertion (Virya-Paramita)
Meditation (Dhyana-Paramita)
Wisdom (Prajna-Paramita)

The Four Reliances


Guidelines for learning the Dharma:

1) Rely on the Dharma, rather than on the person teaching the Dharma.

2) Rely on the meaning or point (artha), rather than on the literal words.

3) Rely on sutras (texts) that are definitive (nitartha), rather than those that are provisional (neyartha) and require further interpretation.

4) Rely on gnosis (jñana ), rather than on discursive, everyday awareness (vijñana ).

Karma, Part 1

Endless Knot

“Kamma should be known. The cause by which kamma comes into play should be known. The diversity in kamma should be known. The result of kamma should be known. The cessation of kamma should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of kamma should be known.”

[From the Nibbedhika Sutta – Penetrative Insight. AN 6.63]

Despite its popularity as a term in contemporary language and conversation, our understating of karma is often misinformed, or lacking profundity.

There is the thought “If you squash a bug, in your next life you will be reborn as a bug and get squashed.”

There is the thought “My life sucks; it is full of obstacles and disappointments. I must have some really bad karma.”

There is the thought “Those evil guys will get what’s coming to them. Karma’s a bitch.”

From a Buddhist perspective karma is more nuanced, complex, and intricate than what is typically being expressed in the above examples. Additionally, karma is not an intelligent being, like some Lawgiver in the sky who is tallying up all of our good and bad behaviors in a cosmic account ledger, and deciding upon our death if we will go to the good place or the bad place. Karma is not about retribution, punishment, or vindication. Karma is not about guilt and the possibility of salvation. These are ideas that have been grafted onto the concept of karma held in some societies, especially stemming from (but not limited to) Western cultural influence, traditions, and worldviews.

The past is over, and the future is uncertain. What we have to work with is the present. It is ALWAYS the present. Ten days ago it was the present for me then. If I am around tomorrow, “tomorrow” will be “today”, and it will be the present. This is the way our consciousness works–moment to moment, each moment being a moment of now. Even if we are reflecting on the past, or contemplating the future, we are doing so now, not some other time. This is obvious, yet we somehow often miss it.

Karma, in a Buddhist sense, refers to action, its causes, conditions, and results. Karma is indubitably linked to our intentions. Buddhist ethics is rooted in this understanding of karma, which in turn is rooted in the understanding of the interdependence of all things (Skt. Pratītyasamutpāda).

In future posts I hope to expand upon these ideas, and unpack them a bit for further exploration.