Skandhas: The Good, The Bad and The Alternatives

Before beginning, many thanks to livelysceptic for asking that I write about Skandhas.

Introduction

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:

  1. Form
  2. Good, bad and neutral feelings.
  3. Recognition of things
  4. Ideas, habits and so on.
  5. Consciousness

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 Good

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.

The Bad

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 Alternatives

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?

  1.          SENSE (and the memories thereof)
  2.          RECOGNITON (judgment, categorizing, etc…)
  3.          CONCEPTUALIZATION
  4.          EMOTION

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.

Conclusion

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?

  1. Am I looking for completeness?
  2. Does my desire require an “object”?
  3. If my desire requires an object, is this because desire is the result of a high level thought?
  4. Am I attached to “reality”?
  5. Is this simply how my mind works and unraveling substance thinking unravels the foundation upon which my mind (and my experience) is based?
  6. 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.

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14 thoughts on “Skandhas: The Good, The Bad and The Alternatives

  1. Really, I should be the one to thank you. And I’m not trying to be polite; I’m impressed. When I read your articles on buddhism, I’m always surprised by the way you approach these subjects: taking them apart, rearranging them without any regard for dogma. Yet, somehow it’s still buddhism. (Not some new-age kind of weak tea!) It would be great if more people interested in buddhism tried that approach. From what I’ve seen in the monastery, a lot of time was spent trying to understand in a passive way. And from what I’ve seen on the internet, self-appointed authorities are endlessly explaining things, not discussing them. Still, if buddhism has any chance as a living philosophy, should our priority not be to look into the question how it all relates to our everyday experience? And how we could work towards the end of suffering?

    I like what you do with consciousness as part of the skandha’s and I agree. I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling about them precisely because they confuse categories. I wanted to know how this came about, but there is nothing to go on. They must have had quite a different logic 2500 years ago. Your alternative set makes a lot more sense 😉

    Maybe all it was ever meant to do was to have us take our experience apart. And to attack substance thinking. After all, it’s very likely that they haven’t changed since the buddha’s days.

    As for the questions, I really like the 5th. Substance thinking seems very, very important. Maybe I should go chew on a mushroom now and see if I can let that go 😉

    Thanks ever so much for writing this. It’s really inspiring.

    1. Ok, I’m blushing!

      I’m glad you feel the way you do, because that’s precisely what I’m trying to do. I want to approach Buddhism from a perspective that is sympathetic yet critical; non-dogmatic yet not watered down.

      On the logic… I think the religious context in which Buddhism arose is dramatically under-appreciated. A lot of stuff, like no-self makes TONS more sense when approached from that context.

      I agree; I don’t think human tendencies have changed a whole lot. We worry about the same stuff, make the same mistakes, and I think we fundamentally think in the same way, even when we’re thinking more scientifically.

      Let me know if your mushroom reveals anything 😛

      1. Hi BR!
        I’m writing this to tell you I’ve mentioned your blog in my post, together with some others that I find really inspiring. I hope you don’t mind my short description of what goes on here!
        I did not manage to leave substance thinking behind, maybe because I did not try the mushroom, but something happened when I was reading an article on free will yesterday. Before, I would have just been looking to have the writer prove my point, confirm my expectations. And suddenly I found I didn’t. Of course I still have opinions on many, many things, but it was a weird sensation. Do you ever look at things in a non-judgemental way. (I don’t mean things you’re simply not interested in.) Anyway, just thought I’d mention it. 🙂

      2. Just a thought…what would you think about exchanging e-mail addresses? Would that be compatible with current blogging etiquette? 😉 If not, I don’t mind.

  2. For what it’s worth … If I understand Stephen Pinker correctly, he proposes that finding the commonalities of languages will lead to the discovery of the fundamental, hard wired level of human thought. His linguistic analysis lead him to theorize that we believe in things and actions. Things do, and are done to. To un-believe this is very difficult and maybe impossible.

    1. Fascinating. I remember reading one or two Pinker books and enjoyed them. Could you point me to more information on this?

      I think linguistics is very important for this sort of stuff, because it seems to shape our thoughts, to the point that much of what we react to is illusory. Many people have touched upon it, but I’d love to see a detailed, systematic, readable treatment that is grounded in practical concerns.

    1. Thank you very much! I’ve been exploring your blog — interesting stuff. Art is one of my weak suits, so I appreciate your writing on art. Anything that can help me understand or, or at least get the gist is greatly appreciated.

      I’d like to know some of your views about Buddhism and how you got into it.

      1. The answer requires me to be more autobiographical than I normally am in public, but I don’t presently see a problem with that.

        My father died essentially bankrupt when I was 13, something that changed our circumstances drastically and woke me up to ephemerality. I started serious reading at about 15 – Dostoevsky, Marx, Freud, and D. T. Suzuki to start, and Jung, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, William Burroughs, McLuhan, Nietzsche, and art and literary magazines before leaving high school. I certainly don’t claim any good understanding of those things at the time but the general themes are pretty obvious. Or maybe not. They’re art and meaning.

        I thank Richard Dawkins for giving me the courage to more recently come out of the closet as an atheist. I had previously lived by Descartes’ remark that a life well lived is a life lived well hidden. I suspect that he was an atheist in spite of his incredibly useless proof of God. But perhaps not in spite of it at all – he might have considered it a private joke, although his sense of humour isn’t well documented.

        And atheism helps explain my interest in religion being entirely practical. Now days, I mostly think about art but I also remain occupied with meditative practices that can influence understanding. Buddhism, Taoism, and the Sufis seem to be the best bet in that regard. I tend to disregard their metaphysical claims (theories of the necessary and sufficient conditions of existence). I think it was Jung who said that the more specific a claim is, the less likely it will be true. This itself, is a somewhat specific claim but I mostly take it as poetical. Art can be partially false words to live by.

        I hope I haven’t been too pretentious, and by this I’m not asking anyone to say, “Oh gosh no, not in the least”.

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