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The Five Skandhas (Aggregates)
– Sean Murphy
When we project conditioning from our past onto the present, we turn a benign moment into something else. Understanding the “five conditions” can help us get back to reality.
While translations and interpretations of the skandha system have differed, what they all share is a representation of five basic factors of human experience. Taken together, these factors explain the totality of what we think of as reality and, by extension, the self.
A traditional presentation of the skandhas may look something like this:
1. Form (Pali, rupa)—the physical world
2. Sensation or Feeling (vedana)— not “sensations” or “feelings” as they’re meant in ordinary English usage, but our simplest responses to experience: like, dislike, or indifference
3. Perception (sanna)—again, not “perception” as conveyed by ordinary English, but the recognition or interpretation of sense objects followed by mental labeling.
4. Mental formations (sankharas)— volitional mental actions, triggered by some object, that produce karma
5. Consciousness (vinnana)—cognizance, including thoughts, which this system views as sense objects perceived through the “sense gate” of the mind
A central point in this system is that all the factors that make up our experience are ever-changing, subject to conditions, ungraspable, and impermanent, therefore giving rise to suffering. And a “self ” cannot be found in any of them.
The most useful aspect of the version I offer below may be the clear distinction made between direct, moment-to-moment experiences and the mental projections we add on top of those experiences—the confusion between the two being a primary cause of suffering.
Although I may have altered some terms slightly in this interpretation, this version of the five skandhas, shows a chain of progression from one to the next:
1. Sensation—direct experience, through the senses, of the physical world. Similar to the traditional version of “form,” although perhaps this version clarifies the point that even what we think of as objective physical reality is already mediated through our senses.
2. Feeling—our simplest internal response to any sensation: like, dislike, or indifference. This is the same as the traditional system.
3. Reaction—the feeling of like, dislike, or neutrality provokes a reaction that ranges from leaping to our feet at a loud sound to subtle contraction or relaxation in the body. Such reactions may also include complex emotional responses like anger, fear, or envy—and thus include aspects of the traditional fourth skandha, mental formations.
4. Recognition/Interpretation— the mind catches up with an experience and applies a label to it. In the example above, we’ve heard a sound (sensation), disliked it (feeling), and leaped to our feet (reaction) before realizing it’s a car backfiring. This is essentially the same as the traditional third skandha.
5. Consciousness—this is just ordinary human consciousness as average people experience it. The key aspect for our purposes is that this is where we download the storehouse of past experiences and concepts and thereby obscure the direct experience of the first skandha (sensation), often creating confusion and suffering in the process.
The fifth skandha (Recognition/Interpretation) can be thought of as just “the story. Our mind latches onto the loud sound and runs off thinking about our neighbor’s noisy car: how he’s probably disconnected the emission system and is pumping out noxious chemicals, damaging the health of the planet; how it is that we’ve become so dependent on fossil fuels to begin with; and how, if we don’t do something to intervene, the human race is probably doomed, and so on. Our minds have turned a simple sound into the end of the world!
Presenting the fifth aggregate as “the story” does not include everything the traditional formulation implies; nonetheless, it allows us to quickly grasp the fundamental point: that there’s a big difference between what happens to us and what we bring to that experience. There lies a key to relieving suffering and creating a more satisfying life for ourselves and those around us.
For example, we may all have days in which nothing bad actually happens to us, but how often is there a day when we don’t find some excuse to suffer? Our suffering in this case is caused by confusing reality with concepts and judgments based largely on past experience—by our conditioning, in other words—importing fear and other painful emotions into an otherwise neutral or even benign moment.
By applying mindful attention to the unfolding of the five skandhas, we may be able to catch ourselves reacting according to our conditioning—perhaps at first only at the level of the story—and instead realize: I’m upsetting myself because I’m running a story; nothing has really happened to justify this level of upset. The result? Perhaps we can let go, return to direct experience, and spare ourselves unnecessary suffering.
Stories, of course, are made up of thoughts—those mental proliforations that intrude upon direct experience— what we let go of in meditation. The more we learn to let go of proliforations, the more we gain the ability to drop our negative stories— loosening the grip of the 5 hindrances. As we continue to practice, we may begin to catch ourselves earlier in the chain—perhaps even noticing dislike at the feeling level and choosing a mindful response rather than automatic reaction.
This practice may sound simple, but it has huge ramifications. How many relationships are ruined because of mental projections, fabrications, stories of past wrongs and rejections? How many wars have started over ideas that had little to do with reality?
Meditation is the tool we use to discover the the source and process of unskillful thoughts, and we can put this into practice in our daily lives by being mindful of the five skandhas.
Our true nature is like the infinite sky, unmarked by whatever drama temporarily appears in its vast space. The heart remembers its essential spaciousness. Heedless thinking complicates, entangles, and traps the sense of “me” into sticky webs of suffering. Mindful of a thought, like the momentary glimpse of a colorful sunbird flashing through the light, the heart remains undisturbed, serene in its sky-like presence. Whatever the circumstance, bodily movement or stillness, feeling well or distressed, with good concentration or scattered attention, everything can be brought back to awareness.