107 – Active Hope 1: Finding and Enacting Our Best Response to the World’s Suffering 109 – What Does Buddhism Have to Say About Mass Shootings?

There are many places in the Pali Canon where the Buddha mentions the “Five Skandhas,” or aggregates, which are basically the five aspects of a human being: Form, or the body; Feelings, or our basic positive, negative, or neutral reactions to stimuli; Perception, the basic process of labeling or identifying things; Consciousness, our awareness of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and thoughts; and Mental Fabrications, all of our active processes of mind. The Five Skandhas, as I’ll explain, aren’t so much a teaching in and of themselves as they are a tool for exploring the teaching of Anatta, or not-self.



Quicklinks to Content:
The Bodhisattva Vows to Awaken to Emptiness
The Practical Benefits of Emptiness for the Bodhisattva
The Buddha’s Teaching of the Five Clinging-Skandhas, or Aggregates
Ways We Get “Taken In” by the Skandhas
The Five Skandhas as Focal Points for the Practice of Not-Self
What Does It Mean to Let Go of Identification with the Skandhas?
Using the Skandhas as a Tool in Practice


The Bodhisattva Vows to Awaken to Emptiness

Before I delve into the Buddha’s teaching on the Five Skandhas, however, I want to make something of a digression in order to put this teaching in the context of what I’ve been talking a lot about over the last month or so: Namely, the aspect of bodhisattva activity that has to do with responding compassionately to living beings. I’ve talked about the bodhisattva response in a classical sense, through studying Dogen’s Shishobo, and in a practical sense, in terms of our personal response to suffering in our world. However, freeing or saving living beings is only part of the bodhisattva’s vow. A bodhisattva also vows to awaken, because only then is she truly effective in her task to serve others. This need for a bodhisattva to be free from delusion is reflected in this passage from the Diamond Sutra (translation by Red Pine):[i]

“The Buddha said to [Subhuti], ‘Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form of no form, whether they have perception or no perception… in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’

“And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva.’ And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”

The Diamond Sutra is talking about how a true bodhisattva accords with the “perfection of wisdom,” or prajna paramita, which is the truth of emptiness. All things, beings, actions, thoughts, experiences – all things you can possible conceive of – are ultimately empty. What does this mean? It’s not that all things are void or nonexistent. It means things are empty of something we expect to be there, like a glass is empty when there’s no liquid in it, or a bank account is empty when there’s no money in it.

What is it we expect to be within phenomena? Inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature. We assume things and beings contain some “self-essence” which defines them and remains more or less unchanged over time.

Another translation for shunyata, or emptiness, is “boundlessness.” This points to a different aspect of this teaching: How all the apparent boundaries between things are more or less arbitrary distinctions created by our discriminating mind. That’s what the mind has evolved to do – tell the difference between safe versus dangerous, me versus you, mine versus yours, here versus there, etc. The capacity to discriminate is necessary to our survival. However, when you look really closely and try to locate a real, fixed boundary between things, you can’t actually find one.

The classic way to get your mind around boundlessness is to think of how a hard surface like a brick wall is mostly space if you look at it at the level of atoms. A more directly perceptible example of a boundary we arbitrarily create is defining a finger: In one sense a finger really exists, and part of its defining features is its separateness from other fingers and the rest of the hand, and yet without the hand and other fingers, an individual finger is a meaningless designation – even if a finger’s been cut off, it’s defined by what it used to be attached to, and what it used to relate to. Sometimes we draw a boundary between finger and hand, sometimes between hand and arm, sometimes between my whole body and yours. Boundaries are very useful but there’s actually nothing inherently fixed or true about them.

As I discussed in Episode 74 and many other times, in Zen we call the aspect of reality where boundaries and differences matter “relative,” and the aspect of reality where everything is actually just part of one, luminous, whole – without inherent divisions – we call “absolute.” Both aspects of reality are true simultaneously and do not contradict each other in any way, although at times they may appear to. Typically, human beings are caught in a limited view of reality, only able to perceive its relative aspects. Awakening to the absolute aspect of reality and understanding the emptiness of self and all things is a central goal of Zen practice.

The Practical Benefits of Emptiness for the Bodhisattva

In a practical sense, we start faltering in our bodhisattva activity when we get completely caught up the relative aspect of reality. In our noble efforts to help beings, we very definitely conceive of a self. This self has deep feelings and intentions. Other beings also seem very real, as does their pain. Injustice feels inherently real, and victory over injustice offers satisfaction and joy that feels very real. The Earth is real, as is the possibility of much of life on Earth going extinct. Greed, hate, and delusion are surely real. When we’re all caught up in the relative, things can become overwhelming and discouraging very quickly. We experience anger, frustration, hatred, anxiety, depression, impatience, and a whole host of other feelings that really don’t help our bodhisattva activity at all.

What’s the alternative? We can operate in the relative even while we stay aware of the absolute aspect of reality. This is a bodhisattva working tirelessly to liberate every last being, while remaining aware, as the Diamond Sutra says, that “not a single being is liberated.” What does this actually mean, in practice? For me, honoring the relative and absolute at the same time means boldly taking action according to my conscience and compassion, but trying to remain aware that my stories about reality are not reality itself. I need my stories to operate in the world, and I form them based on the best information I can find, but when it comes down to it, I’m making a judgment call about where to draw the boundaries between self and other, right and wrong, victim and perpetrator, possible and impossible.

For example, let’s say I’m working for immigrant justice in my community (this is a hypothetical one at this point in time, although it might not be in the future). Let’s say I’ve decided no human being should ever be called “illegal,” regardless of their circumstances, and we have a moral duty to treat all people in a humane and dignified way. I end up identifying certain policies in my city that end up making life extremely difficult and dangerous for undocumented community members, and I work on changing them. When I’m caught up in the relative aspect of reality, I may spend a fair amount of time in anguish, worrying about the immigrants I have come to know. I may experience a lot of anger and outrage directed at the people who resist the work I’m doing. I may despair when my effort to bring about change ends up failing.

To maintain some sense of the absolute, and therefore function more effectively as a bodhisattva, I try to recognize my sad story about the plight of immigrants in my community is not the whole story. It contains elements of truth, but the struggles undocumented residents have with Immigration and Customs Enforcement is only one aspect of their lives. They also have families, jobs, and times of joy. There is ultimately no inherent, enduring self-nature to be found within my political opponents; they are the result of their karma, just as I am the result of mine. Blame and hatred are fruitless. Although I may passionately work for change, when it doesn’t come about, it’s not the universe personally sticking it to me. I can let go of the whole dang narrative without losing my bodhisattva heart, and without losing my urge to respond. And being able to let go of my narrative, at least for a time, especially when I’m meant to be meditating, or resting, or spending time with loved ones, could mean the difference between burnout and a sustained life of service.

The Buddha’s Teaching of the Five Clinging-Skandhas, or Aggregates

So… that’s a long way of saying part of the bodhisattva’s responsibility is to awaken to emptiness, which begins with recognizing the emptiness of self. The Buddha didn’t actually talk much about emptiness; as I discuss at length in Episode 14 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 1: The Three Marks and the Teaching of Not-Self (Anatta), the way the Buddha approached what we, in Zen, call “emptiness” was by advocating the practice of not-self, or anatta. Rather than speculating about the nature of self – talking about how it’s empty of any inherently-existing, enduring nature or essence – the Buddha simply taught that you’ll experience much less suffering if you refrain from identifying any thing as “self.” In other words, you can learn to avoid taking the extra, unnecessary, dukkha-causing step of assuming there’s an inherently-existing, enduring self-nature in anything (or anyone).

The practice of not-self brings us – at last – to the Buddha’s teachings around the Five Skandhas, commonly translated as the five aggregates. As I will explain in more detail in a bit, the Five Skandhas aren’t so much a teaching in an of themselves as they are a tool, or focal point, for the practice of not-self. Again, the Five Skandhas are Form, or the body; Feeling, or our rather primitive positive, negative, or neutral reactions to stimuli; Perception, the basic process of labeling or identifying things; Consciousness, our awareness of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and thoughts; and Mental Fabrications, all of our active processes of mind.

The way I look at it, the list of Five Skandhas was the Buddha’s way of pointing to every aspect of our human experience and sense of being. The term skandha, or in Pali “khandha,” means “heap,” “pile,” “aggregate,” “mass,” or “bundle.”[ii] Appropriately, all of these translations of skandha point to the fact there are ultimately no fixed boundaries between the five aggregates that make up a human being. We use these different designations for a purpose, which I’ll get to, but they’re not meant to inspire us to ponder too long the exact nature, function, or differentiating characteristics of each skandha.

In fact, the essence of the Buddha’s teaching on not-self didn’t so much focus on the Five Skandhas per se, which are just neutral aspects of a human existence; the Buddha focused on the five “clinging-skandhas,” or the skandhas when we cling to them. Clinging means we make more out of the skandhas than is merited, and thereby start to get all wrapped up in – and upset about – them. In the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131), the Buddha explains that during an “auspicious day” of practice, a monk doesn’t dwell on the past or future, but sees the present clearly and is not “taken in” by it. He says further (translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

“And how is one not taken in with regard to present qualities? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones who has seen the noble ones, is versed in the teachings of the noble ones, is well-trained in the teachings of the noble ones, does not see form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form.

“He/she does not see feeling as self, or self as possessing feeling, or feeling as in self, or self as in feeling.

“He/she does not see perception as self, or self as possessing perception, or perception as in self, or self as in perception.

“He/she does not see [mental] fabrications as self, or self as possessing fabrications, or fabrications as in self, or self as in fabrications.

“He/she does not see consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. This is called not being taken in with regard to present qualities.”[iii]

Ways We Get “Taken In” by the Skandhas

Elsewhere in the Pali Canon, the mental gymnastics described in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta are called “I-making” and “my-making.”[iv] If you take some time to reflect on all the permutations of I-making and my-making described in the sutta, you’ll probably start recognizing the many ways – unlike the monk in the midst of an auspicious day – you tend to get overly “caught up” or “taken in” by your experience.

Sometimes we identify a skandha as self. Sometimes I think “I am my body” when I feel physically threatened, or “I am my feelings” when I’m experiencing strong aversion. At other times, I may feel as if I possess a skandha, such as the capacity of perception when I’m watching a beautiful sunset or listening to great music. When my mind is overtaken by disturbing mental fabrications and I can’t get rid of them, I may think “mental fabrications” are in self – they’re a part of me, but not the part I’m most identified with (which, of course, would be the part capable of dictating the state of my own mind, even though that part is suspiciously AWOL at the moment). On the other hand, I may be so identified with consciousness I believe my self resides within that skandha, despite the fact that consciousness constantly changes.

In his essay “Five Aggregates: A Study Guide,” Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains eloquently how clinging to the skandhas leads to suffering (note, Thanissaro uses the Pali word “khandha” rather than the Sanskrit word “skandha”). He says the “sense of me and mine” we get from identifying with or claiming possession of a skandha:

“…is rarely static. It roams like an amoeba, changing its contours as it changes location. Sometimes expansive, sometimes contracted, it can view itself as identical with a khandha, as possessing a khandha, as existing within a khandha, or as having a khandha existing within itself. At times feeling finite, at other times infinite, whatever shape it takes it’s always unstable and insecure, for the khandhas providing its food are simply activities and functions, inconstant and insubstantial. In the words of the canon, the khandhas are like foam, like a mirage, like the bubbles formed when rain falls on water. They’re heavy only because the iron grip of trying to cling to them is burdensome. As long as we’re addicted to passion and delight for these activities — as long as we cling to them — we’re bound to suffer.”[v]

The Five Skandhas as Focal Points for the Practice of Not-Self

The Buddha’s teachings of the Five Skandhas, then, isn’t really a teaching in and of itself as much as it’s a way for us to explore the practice of anatta, not-self, more deeply and thoroughly. In other words, it’s not that the Buddha awakened and then said, “I had a brilliant insight into the composition of a human being, and we can be broken down into five parts.” The exact list and description of the skandhas isn’t what matters – maybe it could be list of four or six skandhas. The point is for us to look closely at our experience and recognize when we’re being “taken in” or “caught up” in certain aspects of it.

Exploring the Five Skandhas helps us discern when the idea “I am” appears in the process of identification with them. Once we notice this arising, we can observe how the idea “I am” inevitably leads to dukkha – stress, dis-ease, or even suffering. Conversely, if we can manage to let go of the idea “I am,” we see that idea is completely unnecessary. When we let go of the idea “I am,” we don’t blink out of existence or lose the capacity to think or act. Actually, everything goes even better because we’re free from the idea of “I am,” which always brings with it self-concern.

It will probably help to offer a few examples of using the Five Skandhas as the focus for the practice of not-self. Let’s say I end up with a debilitating, chronic illness that severely limits my energy and activities. If I dwell on the loss of my vitality and strength, I may be thinking “I am my body.” Before, I was identified with being strong, independent, and capable. Now I feel like I am weak and can’t be relied on (as opposed to it’s my body that’s often weak and can’t be relied on). If I can practice anatta, or not-self, and stop identifying my body as my self, some of the extra anguish I’m adding to my situation may be relieved. I’ll still have to deal with the pain and difficulty of my illness, but at least I won’t be torturing myself with the extra identification of self with body.

On the other hand, perhaps when I stop identifying my sick body as my self, I shift into identifying with my feelings. I see my body as belonging to self, or self as existing inside the body whether I like it or not – and right now, I don’t like it! My dislike may manifest as anger, despair, depression, denial, bitterness, or resistance. If I become caught up in my feelings, they can take over my life. After all, feelings of like, dislike, and neutrality – or pleasure, pain, or disinterest – evolved in us to motivate us to act for self-preservation. Strong aversion especially is like a clarion call to action! Therefore, in the midst of my feelings about my chronic illness, there’s also no peace. I feel I must do something to stop feeling this way, and yet perhaps there’s not much to be done about my illness.

Practicing not-self with my feelings may bring some relief. What if I tell myself, “Okay, negative feelings are arising. My illness is painful and challenging, and will keep generating negative feelings. This is natural. However, I am doing everything I can to mitigate my illness and therefore do not need to pay too much attention to these feelings. The feelings are not me.” A shift like this is internal and fairly subtle, but if I can do this, I may be better able to find space around my feelings – to let them arise and pass without getting so caught up in them.

However (to continue my example), I’ve been led to try this whole practice of “not-self” through a series of mental fabrications. They were helpful, but my practice of not-self – especially recognizing a situation where it was called for and reminding myself to do it, involved active mental processes. If I get too identified with the skandha of mental fabrication, this too leads to suffering. Maybe the practice of not-self – as I’ve conceived of it – works pretty well for a week or so, and then I have a really bad flare-up of my illness and get completely caught up in the pain and drama and forget my intention to practice. Once I remember practice again, I may feel desperate and miserable because, clearly, I can’t depend on my mind. I had thought I’d found a way out of my misery, but actually I’m just a weak and lazy person who gets easily overwhelmed and distracted.

Relief may come if I recognize even my active mental processes – my intentions, hopes, ideas, evaluations, plans, all of it – are not-self. Or, more accurately, they are just what they are, and I am projecting a sense of self on to them. I practice. My mind is clear (or not clear). I want to practice not-self so I don’t experience so much misery. When I project this sense of self, I’m relating to reality in a relative sense, which means when everything’s going great I may feel wonderful, but I’m bound to be miserable when things don’t go the way I want them to. This is why the Buddha repeatedly asked his students, “Are the Skandhas constant, or inconstant?” And when his students said, “Inconstant,” the Buddha asked, “Are inconstant things easeful, or stressful?” His students replied that inconstant things are stressful.[vi]

What Does It Mean to Let Go of Identification with the Skandhas?

What is it we’re letting go of when we “let go of identification with the Skandhas?” If I let go of identification with my active mental processes, doesn’t that mean I’ll end up an idiot, or completely irresponsible, or in some kind of mental breakdown where I can’t function?

The “I-making” or “my-making” we do with respect to the Five Skandhas has profound implications but is actually quite subtle. I think of this process as being a narrative we add to our experience, just as a narrator might do a voiceover for a film. “This is what’s happening right now,” our mind tells us. “You are being threatened.” Or, “You are very happy right now.” Or, “You intended to be mindful of your identification with the Five Skandhas but then you completely forgot because your mind is so undisciplined.” Our mind is trying to make sense of the world for us. As Robert Wright mentioned in his recent book Why Buddhism Is True, the narrative our mind creates for us might actually be primarily for purposes of communication with others: As opposed to revealing our forethought in terms of executive power and planning, our conscious, self-centered narrative tends to come after the fact – an often inaccurate account of what happened, which actually unfolded more or less independently of our sense of “Executive I.”

If our internal narrative sense of “I” is just our brain constructing a story to tell ourselves and others, this would explain why we can stop believing that story – that is, practice anatta, or not-self – and still function perfectly well. That is to say, that “I” narrative will keep arising, seeing as it’s really just part of the skandha of consciousness, but we don’t have to believe it’s telling an inherently true story. Without “I-making” and “my-making,” the skandhas will continue to function as they always have, and we will live and love and work and make mistakes just like we always have – just without getting stuck in the story. When a setback at work makes us feel like a failure, we notice the knot in our gut, our feelings of fear and shame, our perceptions that others have lost respect for us, our internal narratives about our hopeless future, and we say, “not-self.” Of course, we don’t then identify something else as self, because even if our loving family or artistic hobby gives us some solace, they aren’t a permanent refuge either. Instead, we live without believing the extra story that sometimes builds us up and sometimes tears us down.

The natural and vital way of living without “I-making” and “my-making” is illustrated in the Pali Canon Upatissa Sutta. Venerable Sariputta, one of the foremost disciples of the Buddha, explains to the disciple Ananda how he has reached a state where “There is nothing in the world with whose change or alteration there would arise within me sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair.”[vii] Ananda asks Sariputta if that included the Buddha, and Sariputta responds:

“Even if there were change & alteration in the Teacher, my friend, there would arise within me no sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair. Still, I would have this thought: ‘What a great being, of great might, of great prowess, has disappeared! For if the Blessed One were to remain for a long time, that would be for the benefit of many people, for the happiness of many people, out of sympathy for the world; for the welfare, benefit, & happiness of human & divine beings.’”

“Surely,” [said Ven. Ananda,] “it’s because Ven. Sariputta’s I-making & mine-making and obsessions with conceit have long been well uprooted that even if there were change & alteration in the Teacher, there would arise within him no sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair.”[viii]

When we hear that Sariputta wouldn’t be upset by the Buddha’s illness or death, it’s easy to assume that means he has no human feelings anymore, which doesn’t actually sound much like a state most of us aspire to, no matter how pain-free it might be. However, Sariputta says that even though he wouldn’t be personally distraught, he would still think, “Oh no! That’s too bad! The Buddha is such a wonderful person and brings such benefit to living beings!” What kind of narrative might Sariputta be free from, allowing him to stop there? He doesn’t think, “Oh no, what’s going to happen to me without a teacher!” or “If even the Buddha dies, I too will face my mortality soon and be no more.” Or if such thoughts enter Sariputta’s mind, he observes them and regards them, also, as not-self. If we had Sariputta’s attitude, I’m thinking we could say, “Geez, that setback at work was a real bummer,” and maybe even acknowledge we’re feeling a lack of confidence because of it, without weaving an elaborate story around all of it, centered on “I, me, and mine.”

Using the Skandhas as a Tool in Practice

As we use the concept of the Five Skandhas to focus our practice of not-self, I don’t think it really matters all that much whether we identify or categorize any particular experience as Form, Feeling, Perception, Mental Fabrications, or Consciousness. It would be easy to get bogged down in wondering whether my irritability is due to identification with my ideas and plans, or with my feelings, or with my body. Maybe I’m physically tired and therefore determined to get a bunch of stuff done in a short period of time, and when I encounter setbacks I experience aversion. Our actual experience is complex, and each part of it is connected to all the other parts.

What matter most, I think, is that we allow the categories and descriptions of the Skandhas to turn us toward our internal, personal human experience with curiosity, and allow the concepts to help us notice aspects of our bodies, hearts, and minds we do identify as being self, or belonging to self, or as being in self, or self as residing in them. Maybe it’s our physical appearance, our sexuality, or our ability to function independently without reliance on others. Maybe we’re identifying as self our intelligence, generosity, or conscience. It may be our plans and intentions we view as self, or our ability to be socially or financially successful. Anything – internal or external – we identify as “I, me, or mine” has the potential to cause us unnecessary stress, dissatisfaction, and even suffering.



[i] Pine, Red. The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Press, 2001.
[ii] “The Five Aggregates: A Study Guide”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/khandha.html and Access to Insight glossary (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/glossary.html#k)
[iii] An Auspicious Day: Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131). Translated by Thanissaro Bhihhku: https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN131.html
[iv] “Upasena Sutta: Upasena” (SN 35.69), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.069.than.html .
[v] “The Five Aggregates: A Study Guide”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/khandha.html .
[vi] “Gaddula Sutta: The Leash (2)” (SN 22.100), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.100.than.html .
[vii] “Upatissa Sutta: About Upatissa (Sariputta)” (SN 21.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 27 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn21/sn21.002.than.html .
[viii] Ibid

Photo credit: Image by Pexels from Pixabay


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