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April 17, 2011

Five Skandhas

Lately I've been tripping over, dripping with, and sipping on the the five skandhas (commonly interpreted as "aggregates"). This is the way Buddha described both how we come to define our existence as an individual, despite lack concrete evidence, and how we perpetuate this fallacy. After some contemplation and reading I feel I understand the first three somewhat.

Number one is form - just what is, whether smells, sounds, sights, or other types of forms. What trips me up about this is that although forms are there, number one isn't our interaction with them, our interpretation, perception, reaction, or anything - that all comes later. It really begs the questions of a tree falling in the forest with no one around. However, instead of grappling with the question any longer, I'd rather move on to number two: Sensation

Sensation is so easily paired with number one that I really wonder why they are separate - but perhaps that is the narcissist in me. I have a hard time believing anything exists that I don't know about. What I love about this aggregate is its simplicity. It is simply the fact of sensing the form. So you have the form, whether it is sound, sight, solid, or all three and then you have the hearing, touching, seeing - and that is all. This one doesn't include how we feel about it - that comes later with "perception".

Number three - perception is also fairly straight forward. This is not the thought but the gut reaction of towards, away, or neutral. After all, with every sensation we respond in one of those three ways - whether or not we are conscious of it (consciousness comes later). What I love about these first three is how well they are connected and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the next. I imagine a baby, first just being, then noticing sensations, and almost immediately going towards some (like warmth), away from others (such as hunger), and leaving quite a few neutral (maybe the sight of auntie's face).

It is numbers four and five that have me stumbling, not comprehending - commonly called "mental concepts/volition" and "consciousness". These have to do with pure awareness and a type of action that is more complicated than perception but not necessarily conscious. It is with mental volition that we create karma but I still don't understand how and the subtleties of this aggregate. Nor do I understand how consciousness fits into the whole puzzle - and how exactly do they fit together? Do they move on a timeline, one after the others in the way they are listed or can they flip and skip? Can we have consciousness without sensation or form without perception? If so, how? If not, why separate them in this way?

I've heard that understanding the skandhas is key to understanding impermanence, interdependent existence, and dukkha. I grew up aware of the aggregates yet with no intimate knowledge of them. Somehow, I felt I understood interdependence and impermanence - yet can I really understand these two concepts without understanding the basis of how Buddha described the arising of our sense of self?