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The Skandhas as Practice Categories

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The Skandhas as Practice Categories
Answer
12/3/19 1:43 PM
I find the five skandhas to be a very powerful model of the perceptual process, and how it gets bent into producing the illusion of a self which is separate from it. By extension, though, it also can become a way to think about liberation in terms of where along the self-ing process you are interrupting.

The traditional translation is something like: Form -> Feeling -> Discernment -> Volition -> Consciousness

I've simplified this for the sake of discussion into a four-step process with clearer wording: Stimulus -> Analysis <-> Conditioned Response <-> Conditioning-Cognition

In other words, one contacts an object of experience (stimulus; equivalent to form), determines its characteristics (good/bad, loud/quiet; equivalent to feeling + discernment), responds based on past conditioning (conditioned response; equivalent to volition), and the entire process gets recorded as a whole into conditioning-cognition (equivalent to consciousness), which is what holds the past conditioning that triggers the response in the previous step. This bidirectionality of conditioning is what feeds the whole process.

Awakening is a way to see through the idea that this process is a self. You see it for what it is and the conditioning loses its hold over you. This severs the line between stimulus and response. The only way to do this experientially, though, is to break one of the connections to cut the ties between stimulus and response, to see reactivity as fluid and not inevitable. Either by watching how the system acts without one of the links, or by watching how it reestablishes the link after breaking it, we gain experiential insight into how it works.

This gives us a powerful model to think about how different styles of practice actually work! Namely, a given technique works by suspending a given link in the chain of skandhas. Different techniques have the same result in that they ultimately destroy the illusion of a fixed self, but they have different results in that they get at it by affecting different parts of the process. We can then categorize them by which link is being disrupted. Some examples follow.

Cutting off stimulus
Cessation (nirodha)

Cutting off analysis after stimulus
Meditation on identitylessness (shunyata)
"Resting in presence" practices; main practice of Dzogchen, Mahamudra, etc.
Tantric perfection stage

Cutting off response after analysis
Do Nothing
Noting
Tantric generation stage (this more properly alters analysis itself)
Devotion
Morality

Cutting off conditioning-cognition after response
Purification
Psychotherapy, CBT

The last category (before conditioning, after response) cannot produce full liberation by itself, because the line between stimulus and conditioned response is still intact. It is very helpful as a preliminary or support for the other practices, though.

Any thoughts? I hope you find this helpful. I definitely do since I have started using it as a framework quite recently, and it definitely helps bring some clarity of intention into practice.

May all beings be free!

RE: The Skandhas as Practice Categories
Answer
12/3/19 7:47 PM as a reply to Matthew.
Matthew:
I find the five skandhas to be a very powerful model of the perceptual process, and how it gets bent into producing the illusion of a self which is separate from it. By extension, though, it also can become a way to think about liberation in terms of where along the self-ing process you are interrupting.

The traditional translation is something like: Form -> Feeling -> Discernment -> Volition -> Consciousness

I've simplified this for the sake of discussion into a four-step process with clearer wording: Stimulus -> Analysis <-> Conditioned Response <-> Conditioning-Cognition

In other words, one contacts an object of experience (stimulus; equivalent to form), determines its characteristics (good/bad, loud/quiet; equivalent to feeling + discernment), responds based on past conditioning (conditioned response; equivalent to volition), and the entire process gets recorded as a whole into conditioning-cognition (equivalent to consciousness), which is what holds the past conditioning that triggers the response in the previous step. This bidirectionality of conditioning is what feeds the whole process.

Awakening is a way to see through the idea that this process is a self. You see it for what it is and the conditioning loses its hold over you. This severs the line between stimulus and response. The only way to do this experientially, though, is to break one of the connections to cut the ties between stimulus and response, to see reactivity as fluid and not inevitable. Either by watching how the system acts without one of the links, or by watching how it reestablishes the link after breaking it, we gain experiential insight into how it works.

This gives us a powerful model to think about how different styles of practice actually work! Namely, a given technique works by suspending a given link in the chain of skandhas. Different techniques have the same result in that they ultimately destroy the illusion of a fixed self, but they have different results in that they get at it by affecting different parts of the process. We can then categorize them by which link is being disrupted. Some examples follow.

Cutting off stimulus
Cessation (nirodha)

Cutting off analysis after stimulus
Meditation on identitylessness (shunyata)
"Resting in presence" practices; main practice of Dzogchen, Mahamudra, etc.
Tantric perfection stage

Cutting off response after analysis
Do Nothing
Noting
Tantric generation stage (this more properly alters analysis itself)
Devotion
Morality

Cutting off conditioning-cognition after response
Purification
Psychotherapy, CBT

The last category (before conditioning, after response) cannot produce full liberation by itself, because the line between stimulus and conditioned response is still intact. It is very helpful as a preliminary or support for the other practices, though.

Any thoughts? I hope you find this helpful. I definitely do since I have started using it as a framework quite recently, and it definitely helps bring some clarity of intention into practice.

May all beings be free!


aloha matthew,

   It seems to me that this sort of analysis applies more to the twelve ljnks (of dependent origination) than the five skandhas, which are not traditionally "linked" causally.

terry




from rigpawiki.org...



Images for the Twelve Links


Ignorance - An old blind person groping for his way with a cane

Karmic formations - A potter shaping a vase on a wheel. The pots the potter makes symbolise the actions of body, speech and mind with which he moulds his karma in the wheel of life. Karmic imprints or traces from actions in previous lives affect our present and future lives in the form of certain propensities, just as the potter’s wheel keeps turning after a single push.

Consciousness - A monkey swinging from a tree. The monkey represents our consciousness, the way we tend to spring from one thought to another in an uncontrolled manner.

Name and form - A person (or people) on a boat. The five skandhas that make up our sense of ‘self’ need a physical body: form (the boat) and a psyche: name (the mental skandhas: feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness).

Six sense organs - A house with five windows and a door. This symbolises the six senses by which the outer world is perceived. In the wheel of life they are represented by an empty house because this is a time when the organs of the embryo are developing but not yet functioning.

Contact - A couple embracing

Sensation - A person with an arrow in their eye

Craving - A woman offering a drink to a man

Grasping - A man plucking fruit from a tree

Becoming - A beautiful bride (sometimes depicted as a couple making love or a pregnant woman)

Birth - A woman giving birth

Old age and death - Bearers with a corpse

RE: The Skandhas as Practice Categories
Answer
12/4/19 10:11 AM as a reply to terry.
Aloha Terry!

Yes, the 12 links of dependent origination are more natural to think of as a causal link. It is a bit long and unweildy for my purposes in this post, though. I have heard the skandhas explained as links in a single process. The teachers I've heard of explaining it that way, however, have been Tibetan or Zen, so there's some room to debate what counts as "traditional."

To be as traditional as possible, here is a quote from the Samyutta Nikaya which at least implies there is interaction between the skandhas. Here the Buddha explains that the aggregate of fabrication/volition/conditioned response is responsible for turning the aggregates (including itself!) into discrete objects:
And why do you call them 'fabrications'? Because they fabricate fabricated things, thus they are called 'fabrications.' What do they fabricate into a fabricated thing? For the sake of form-ness, they fabricate form as a fabricated thing. For the sake of feeling-ness, they fabricate feeling as a fabricated thing. For the sake of perception-hood… For the sake of fabrication-hood… For the sake of consciousness-hood, they fabricate consciousness as a fabricated thing.

In any event, the concern here is pragmatism rather than tradition. I and hopefully some others find this presentation of the aggregates useful. If you or anyone does not, no worries.

RE: The Skandhas as Practice Categories
Answer
12/5/19 6:27 PM as a reply to Matthew.
Matthew:
Aloha Terry!

Yes, the 12 links of dependent origination are more natural to think of as a causal link. It is a bit long and unweildy for my purposes in this post, though. I have heard the skandhas explained as links in a single process. The teachers I've heard of explaining it that way, however, have been Tibetan or Zen, so there's some room to debate what counts as "traditional."

To be as traditional as possible, here is a quote from the Samyutta Nikaya which at least implies there is interaction between the skandhas. Here the Buddha explains that the aggregate of fabrication/volition/conditioned response is responsible for turning the aggregates (including itself!) into discrete objects:
And why do you call them 'fabrications'? Because they fabricate fabricated things, thus they are called 'fabrications.' What do they fabricate into a fabricated thing? For the sake of form-ness, they fabricate form as a fabricated thing. For the sake of feeling-ness, they fabricate feeling as a fabricated thing. For the sake of perception-hood… For the sake of fabrication-hood… For the sake of consciousness-hood, they fabricate consciousness as a fabricated thing.

In any event, the concern here is pragmatism rather than tradition. I and hopefully some others find this presentation of the aggregates useful. If you or anyone does not, no worries.

   What is meant here by "fabrications"? I suggest they are just notions. The name is not the thing named, the map is not the territory, the description is not the object described, the menu is not the dinner, et cetera. Perhaps this is what you mean, or is what you are saying.

   Tradition is not sacred, but the weight of generations lends it impetus, for good and ill. The 12 steps could be reduced, to say, 2 steps: ignorance leads to craving. What are steps on a slippery slope? The operative notion is the cutting of a link in a chain, and thus snapping the entire chain. 

   Not judging, bra; your presentation is accepted in the spirit it is made. I'm an inveterate joiner of the lonely thread clubs.

terry