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Abhidharma - 5 Skandas (Talk 1 of 3)


By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 12, 2005
Location: Red Cedar Dharma Hall
In topic: Buddhist Psychology
First in a Study of the Five Skandas - Form, Feeling, Perception, Volition, Consciousness -using Chogyam Trungpa's book "Glimpses of Abhidharma"
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Abhidharma - 5 Skandas (Talk 1 of 3)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 12, 2005 

Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager


We are going to study the book Glimpses of Abhidharma by Chogyam Trungpa. This book contains edited transcriptions of his oral teachings given at seminars. Getting a flavor of Trungpa’s way of approaching things is one of the chief virtues of the book. He was a great Buddhist teacher and one of the early Buddhist pioneers, a teacher whose practice and manifestation in this world was crucial for western dharma. 

You will see that the text is a little free form and experimental. You would be very misled if you read this book and thought that it reflected the traditional teachings about abhidharma. But he completely had the dharma under his belt, so that he could be very expansive and creative. He spoke about things in Buddhism that could be very boring and made them sound exciting and mysterious. You would never guess how boring abhidharma really is from reading what he says about it. And that is one of his great contributions. 

The abhidharma is a taxonomy of consciousness. The point of abhidharma is that it is about the basic insights into the nature of mind, the nature of the self, the nature of the emotions, the nature of bondage and the nature of liberation—insights that are found throughout the Buddhist sutras. It can be very interesting when you you take a step back from the sutras and consider all their implications and meanings. That is what Trungpa is doing here, and you can only do that when you know the material. Getting to know the material is deadly boring. Most people go a few steps down that road and say, Enough! It’s too much. And it certainly is not a part of Zen at all. Zen teachers don’t generally go into the details of abhidharma. 

Tonight I will look at Trungpa’s introduction to the topic of the abhidharma and the skandas. Then I will draw out a few points from his discussion of rupa, or form, the first skanda. The thing that caught my eye in his introduction is the relationship in actual practice between intellectual understanding and what he calls intuitive understanding or more emotional understanding. Our goal is not to become enlightened and have some mystical experiences. Our goal, he says, is, “to live in terms of an awakened state of mind on a kitchen-sink level.” I think this is very beautiful. To have an experience of the awakened state of mind may be a good idea, and I think we would all find that thrilling and wonderful, but more to the point is to live according to the awakened state of mind on a kitchen-sink level, on an everyday, ordinary level with people in our lives.

The ability to live in terms of the awakened state of mind on a kitchen-sink level, he argues, is the territory of the abhidharma. It is a way to view and understand and live with consciousness in an awakened way. So to study abhidharma—to study the nature of mind and how the mind works, and what the self is—is more intuitive and experiential than it is intellectual. 

The word skanda means a pile or a heap. Basically a skanda is a category, a way of organizing perceptions and feelings. Buddha was interested in creating these particular five skandas, these categories, because he noticed that basic human ignorance and stupidity is divided into two categories: me and them, me and the rest of the world. In other words: I like what’s good for me, that serves my life; I don’t like what’s bad for me, that doesn’t serve my life. 

We see things according to those two categories, and our seeing them in this way is guaranteed to make problems for us and other people. But we don’t think we are seeing things in terms of those two categories.  We think: That’s the way it is. So we need a counteracting understanding of how to see things. So Buddha said instead of just two categories, suppose we have five categories. We would have a more subtle and refined sense of who it is we are and what the world is. It’s as if this two-category universe we live in, which is me over here and the rest of the world over there, is being deconstructed and reorganized through our understanding of this five-skanda classification. 

The five-skanda classification is a kind of a mental culture, a mental training. To study the five skandas is to reorganize the way you look at your life and your experiences. In other words, to stop seeing everything in terms of the self, the ego and the world, and to see things in terms of form, feelings, perceptions, formations or intentions and consciousness.

Self is all the skandas, right? Because when I think This is me, I am really talking about five categories of things: physical forms, feelings, perceptions, impulses or intentions, actions and consciousness. I am putting that all together under the category of me. The world is also the five skandas.  For example, self and world are both included in the skanda of form. 

You can try this at home. You can try seeing your experience in terms of form, feelings, perceptions, intentions or impulses, activity ,consciousness. You can try, little by little, to reformat your experiences in terms of the skandas. 

Rupa, the first skanda, is the skanda of form. In his discussion, Trungpa emphasizes rupa as the ground of ego, the ground of self. Who are we without the body? But as we all know, we are not only the body. The body as a machine does not encompass what we are. We also have feelings and intentions and viewpoints and so on. But without the body as a basis, those other things don’t exist. There is no consciousness floating around in the abstract. 

After explaining the five skandas, Trungpa talks about the eight consciousnesses. The original abhidharma did not have that system of the eight consciousnesses. It was added later, but when Trungpa discusses abhidharma, he is discussing the later iterations.

The first six consciousnesses are simply the consciousnesses that arises with sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and the cognizing mind. This is interesting, because in Western thought there isn’t a big difference made between the six different consciousnesses. In the West there is a distinction made between sensual consciousness [what we call the five senses] and intellectual consciousness. But there is no difference in consciousness between seeing, hearing, tasting and thinking a thought. It’s interesting to think, Why would that be? Why did the Buddhists see that these were six distinct consciousnesses? 

That’s the point that is being made here. The world is a big assumption that we make by putting together six different kinds of experiences. So we don’t say there are six different worlds. We say there is one world, and we’re experiencing it. But in reality, we have six very different kinds of experiences. And the more intimate you are with those experiences, the more you really do see that they are different universes. 

So those are the first six consciousnesses. The seventh consciousness is called manas, which is our sense of self. This is a kind of organizing principal. It is not only our sense of self, but our sense of self and world. This double, two-category universe is really the product of manas. It is the way we organize the world into a coherent universe of self and other. And so it’s a force within our consciousness. It is actually conceived of as a force, a kind of energy that organizes experience into “a this and a that.” And this is automatically and immediately a big problem. 

The eighth consciousness is alaya, or storehouse consciousness. It is the basic consciousness from which the other seven consciousnesses spring up as differentiated phenomena. In other words, it’s like the undifferentiated ground that already includes the squirrely energy that erupts into the six consciousnesses, and which then requires the seventh consciousness to organize it.


Buddha nature, called dharmakaya or Nirvana or God, or whatever you want to call it, is something beyond the eighth consciousness. It is the eighth consciousness, in a sense, pacified, made whole, with a sense of completion, with a sense fundamental satisfaction. In other words, it is the eighth consciousness absent that squirrely energy that throws up a world of opposition.


In that system, rupa or form, the first skanda, is physicality. It is the physical stuff of the world; it is the basis of the other [CS1] five consciousnesses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. The five sense consciousnesses all require rupa for an object. When the right object and the right organ coincide, then you have a consciousness of sight or sound and so on. So both the organ and the object are rupa. Then the experience is perception. Perception results in feelings or some impulsive desire or some intention. Rupa is the basis for all of that.


The point of understanding the process and understanding it in terms of the five skandas, rather than letting manas define the world for us, is to unhook ourselves from a two-category process of perceiving the world which is essentially addictive and unsuccessful. If we can understand[CS2]  this process and unhook ourselves from it, there can be some peace, a reasonably happy life and maybe even some love.


Then Trungpa uses the word “projection.”  The idea is that the world is a projection of the seventh consciousness, manas, which is based on the six senses. If we recognize that this is so, and we accept it, and we live it, rather than standing outside of it and watching it, then we are all right. Without creating this “me” and the “world,” but just recognizing that it is all a projection, then everything is all right. But this is, of course, a rare experience, because mostly we are standing outside the world. We resent the world or we make demands on it. We don’t actually ever see the world; therefore we are constantly subject to all kinds of errors and troubles.


Basic human ignorance can lead either to panic, or it can lead to a kind of delightful way of being in this world. It’s not that we eliminate ignorance or become egoless, as he says, but rather we understand the nature of the projection that is our lives. We live peacefully. The bewilderment becomes something wonderful.


He doesn’t say in this little passage that if you really were without projections there would be no concept of being, right? You wouldn’t think, Look at me. I am without projections now. You would have no experience of being without projections. Because as soon as you were to think that you were without projections, or somebody else were to say that, this would already be in the realm of comparisons: Oh look! Before I had projections and but look at me now I am without projections. So that’s why he says it’s very plain and simple. In other words, it really amounts to being with, and accepting completely, in a very simple way, what is, what’s there.