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?

One of the central truth claims of Buddhism is that there is no self; that beings mistakenly attribute an overarching and abiding “self” to the moment-by-moment bits of our ever changing and fluctuating experiences and sense impressions. Yet this concept of a discrete and abiding self is accepted as conventional wisdom by many.

One might ask, “Who are you?”, and another might respond, “I am Erika”.

Does this adequately answer the question?

“Erika” is a name; letters strung together in a specific language to use as a convenient identifier. What does the name Erika identify though?

Erika might respond, “I am a biologist”

“Is that it?”

“No, I am also a mother”.

“So Erika is a biologist, and a mother?”

“Yes, but more than that, I am also an art lover, a sister, a daughter, a German, a human being, an inhabitant of the planet Earth…”

This inquiry might continue. Extract out any one of these responses Erika offered and analyze it further; let’s say “a human being”. Is a human being the eyes, nose, arms, heart, lungs, DNA, quarks, protons, electrons, emotions, thoughts, will, imagination?

Where can Erika be found?

Proceeding in this way we see that it is not such a simple endeavor to accurately and precisely identify a forest, or Erika.

One approach to the question of self and/or identity that has been proposed by Buddha Shakyamuni (in regards here–specifically–to sentient beings) is referred to as the five skandhas, commonly translated into English as the five aggregates. These aggregates are as follows:

1) Form (Rūpa)
2) Feeling (Vedanā)
3) Perception (Samjñā)
4) Volition (Samskāra)
5) Consciousness (Vijñāna)

In one of the early Buddhist suttas, the Saṃyutta Nikāya 22.100, titled “The Leash”, Buddha compares  an ordinary being’s state of confusing the five skandhas for the self to a dog tied to a post.

“Suppose, bhikkhus, a dog tied up on a leash was bound to a strong post or pillar. If it walks, it walks close to that post or pillar. If it stands, it stands close to that post or pillar. If it sits down, it sits down close to that post or pillar. If it lies down, it lies down close to that post or pillar.

“So too, bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling regards form thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ He regards feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ If he walks, he walks close to those five aggregates subject to clinging. If he stands, he stands close to those five aggregates subject to clinging. If he sits down, he sits down close to those five aggregates subject to clinging. If he lies down, he lies down close to those five aggregates subject to clinging.

The idea here is that “self” is a reification (in Whitehead’s sense of a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”). Further, this reification of a self is at the root of much of our suffering because based on this misconception of self, attachment, aversion, and ignorance arises in a myriad of forms and manifestations.

Where can the self be found?

As B. Alan Wallace argues in his book Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, Buddhism does not fit neatly into one or another of the categories of philosophy, religion, or science. Buddhism is a bit of each, and more. With that said, while in this article I focused more on a philosophical approach by using a thought experiment coupled with a few logical arguments, the teaching on the five skandhas does not stop there, but includes contemplative and meditative practices to explore these propositions further. Of particular note is the meditation on emptiness/voidness. In future posts I hope to pick up this thread and share a few of these contemplative practices in detail.

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