Before beginning, many thanks to livelysceptic for asking that I write about Skandhas.
Buddhism has a concept called the Skhandas. The Skandhas are the factors that combine to make a person and/or experience, depending on what you read. Sadly, details about Skandhas vary and their terminology is misleading. Therefore, in the interest of clarity here are the Skhandas in more intuitive terms:
- Good, bad and neutral feelings.
- Recognition of things
- Ideas, habits and so on.
The remainder of this article represents my take (and tangents) on Skandhas, so if you are interested in something closer to an official treatment, you can start with the Wikipedia article.
Skandhas are used for several purposes: explaining the make up of a person, the make up of experience and a framework for mindfulness of experience. The rest of this article is about the latter.
The idea behind Skandhas can summarized in the following motto:
Internalize and Depersonalize
I often perceive things as external, which gives them power over me, as I end up seeking, fleeing and reacting. By internalizing these things as experience and then depersonalizing said experience, I am less affected (or totally unaffected) by these things. I come to see clearly that they are just reactions within me. As always, the key is not to understand, but to SEE this in action.
For example, if I see a tasty cake, I think of tastiness as part of the cake and that the cake exists “out there”. However, if I reduce the entire cake to my experience of it (including its taste, desirability, etc…) and watch these reactions within me (watching = depersonalizing), the cake loses at least some of its appeal and may even cease to exist as an “object” for me. This holds true of things I want, hate, fear, and even for things I consider “me” like my body, thoughts, etc…
The very fact of the Skandhas serve to internalize, while the specific Skandhas are a framework to de-personalize. As a framework, the Skandhas are a causal chain to view the development of experience from the moment of contact with something to the time a reaction is triggered. So far so good. However, all is not rosy in Skandha Land.
First, the Skandhas confuse categories. For instance, Form is treated as the physical, which includes the body and sense organs, yet these are irrelevant to my experience. After all, with respect to any object, it’s the sense information regarding it that I experience and not my sense organ per se. I SEE an object, I don’t experience my eyeball with regards to it. I SMELL an object, I don’t experience my nose with regards to it. Am I really supposed to add the thought that something made contact with a sense organ? Besides, doesn’t this re-externalize which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to do with the Skandhas? It gets worse. For instance, Form is often explained in terms of Earth, Wind and Fire. Ignoring for the moment whether this is even believable, there’s a more fundamental question: So what?
Second, the Skandha chain makes no sense from an experiential standpoint. For instance, presentations of Skandhas do not include consciousness as the first item, yet how can I have any experience without it? Not only should it be the first item, but it may not even need to be an item since it is the basis of experience and can be taken as a given. Just what kind of mindfulness of experience can I have with things I’m not even aware of?
Finally, there’s the issue of complexity. Mindfulness of experience is enough to depersonalize so why cause problems by complicating things with a 5 point framework of causality (see the KISS principle)? In all fairness, a deconstruction framework can invite further depersonalization by drawing attention to the structure of experience rather than experience per se…
The Skandhas are powerful as a general idea, but may not be usable for depersonalizing experience. However, the idea behind the Skandhas can be applied to more usable frameworks. Here are a few alternatives.
The first is to re-work the Skandhas themselves. For instance, what about this as an alternative set of Skandhas?
- SENSE (and the memories thereof)
- RECOGNITON (judgment, categorizing, etc…)
The causal chain would be in the order presented. Naturally, it’s EMOTION that we are most interested in. What’s more, this chain would cover everything from real time experience to reliving memories.
The second is to use a variant of Bundle Theory. This is the view that objects do not exist as such, but are a collection of properties. In this case, the properties would be sense+mind regarding any “object”. I blogged about Bundle Theory here.
The third is to adopt a Pyrrhonist standpoint to everything, including experience. One suspends all judgment on experience, including it’s reality. As such, one’s view of reality becomes strictly phenomenological.
Finally, use Buddhist dharmas. Notice the plural — this is not to be confused with Dharma. These are irreducible categories of experience that can serve as a framework for experiential deconstruction. The dharmas have taken on a doctrinal flavor and can get complex (75 dharmas in 5 categories), but look beyond that to the concept, which appear similar to Qualia.
The idea and motivation behind the Skandhas may be more valuable than the Skandhas themselves. Not only do they give us some general strategies for dealing with our experience, but they also bring to light something many of us may not realize: the primacy of substance thinking — the thought that there are things “out there” above and beyond their properties.
Why is substance thinking so powerful? What is it about believing in things outside myself that make them compelling — so much so, that my desire may vanish when the substance is undermined? Substance thinking is so entrenched in me, that I often engage in it even when I think I’m not. Fantasies are not as compelling as reality, and for many this is so even if they had the vivid clarity of reality. What is going on here?
- Am I looking for completeness?
- Does my desire require an “object”?
- If my desire requires an object, is this because desire is the result of a high level thought?
- Am I attached to “reality”?
- Is this simply how my mind works and unraveling substance thinking unravels the foundation upon which my mind (and my experience) is based?
- Are the Skandhas simply a way to convince me to turn within and nothing more?
In this sense, Skandhas could be one way of living up to the Buddhist maxim: Drive all Blames into One.