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Abhidharma - 5 Skandas (Talk 2 of 3)

Feelings and Perceptions

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 13, 2005
In topic: Buddhist Psychology
Second 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 2 of 3)

Feelings and Perceptions

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 13, 2005

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


We have been studying the book Glimpses of Abhidharma, which is the record of a weekend seminar that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche gave some years ago on the subject of the five skandas. He has a very imaginative, improvisational, and thrilling approach to this subject.

Trungpa’s approach to the five skandas is based on a view of how reality comes to be and how ignorance arises. If the world is Buddha nature, if the world is Buddha, why is it that we’re stuck in suffering?

He talks about evolution. The evolution of what? The evolution of ego. That’s what the five skandhas are all about for him: the evolution of ego and the evolution of self. That seems to be the key point in his discussion: how to see through the self, how to understand the self, how to work with the self. The assumption is that seeing how the self develops is a means for us to undo it. In fact, the classical discussion of the skandas has nothing to do with ego. So Trungpa is talking about it in quite a radically different way.

Our discussion of the first skanda will be a review from last week. The other skandas we will discuss tonight are feeling and perception.

The first skanda is form. As soon as form arises, form constellates the world and a self, the world and an observer. Both of these are grounded and located in actual physical matter, but they are located differently. I am over here, and the rest of the world is over there. The form skanda creates these two great big categories: me and the rest of the world.

Once you have form, you have feeling, called vedana. Feeling arises as soon as a sense organ and the object out there in the world interact causing consciousness to arise. So there is me, there is the world, and there is interaction. And as soon as there is interaction, I have a reaction. I feel something. I am affected one way or another. The world impacts me. If I am here and the world is over there, as soon as I engage the world there’s an impact. And that fundamental impact is what vedana is, what feeling is. And this is a very tough thing. As soon as I open my eyes in the morning or go to sleep at night, I am being impacted. There is not a moment’s peace. Right? I am constantly being influenced, impacted, and affected by the fact that the world exists and I exist.  


So this is a big problem: that I’m here, and the world is over there. The world is not me; I am not it. But the world affects me and impacts me and causes this reactivity in me. Every small annoyance and every big difficulty has its source in this fundamental problem.

Vedana, although it is usually translated as “feeling,” is not the same thing as we mean by emotion. What we call emotion is based on vedana, but emotion is a much more complicated, complex of thoughts and sensations.

Vedana comes in three basic flavors. One is negative, which will automatically give rise to the thought: Get me out of here, I hate this. Go away. Make this disappear. Or positive, which immediately gives rise to the thought, This is great. I love this. Give me more of this. Don’t ever let it go away. And the third possibility of vedana is a kind of indifference or dullness. For example, the impact of the world is so tremendous that I am beaten over the head and become just dull. I can’t react to anything. Or it’s ambivalence. I feel both negative and positive about the thing that is impacting me right now. So vedana is positive, negative or neutral.

You can see the evolution: first form, and then out of form comes vedana, feeling. The next evolutionary step is samjna, which is usually translated as perception. Perception is my articulation of the world. So at first, with form, the world is just some vaguely threatening shape out there standing over against me. With the second skandha of feeling, we see the world but cannot name it. With samjna, I begin to articulate. I shine light on the world. I begin to see its parts. I begin to name it. I begin to understand it as an object. I see what the world looks like, tastes like, sounds like, smells like and so on. And as I am doing this, I am beginning to build and mix in my impressions and my definitions of things. My whole cultural matrix – my language, my personal conditioning, my history, my prejudices – are all part of this act of perception. I keep creating and elaborating on this object out in front of me. It comes into view in a million different ways and is quite tainted by all of my conditioning and history. By the time we get to the third skandha of samjna, we have a very convincing and colorful situation, which we call the world we live in. It is very persuasive and creates all sorts of volitions and actions, which is the fourth skanda.

That’s just a very simple sketch of what these skandhas are from the evolutionary standpoint that Trungpa is using in this book. So I found a lot of passages that I thought were really interesting, and I wanted to read you some of his comments and share a few comments of my own.

Trunpa says, “Feeling relates to mind as emotions and to body as clusters of instincts, things, thingness. Understanding of the mind/body pattern of feeling is very important in connection with meditation. We can meditate either intellectually or intuitively. Meditation on the intellectual level is involved with the mind side of the mind/body. It is very imaginary.” And this would be the case of meditation practices like loving-kindness. In Tibetan Buddhism there is a huge amount of visualization meditation.

He continues,  “Intuitive meditation engages the body level of feeling, particular bodily sensations: pleasurable sensations, pain in the legs, hot and cold temperatures in the room.” So that’s our practice. Really focusing on the body—the feeling of the body in sitting. Even though we may use other meditation practices from time to time, basically our practice focuses on the body.

He continues, “A mind is the emotional or dream quality, and the body in this case is also a quality of mind.” That is, we do not experience the body as it is. We experience our version of the body. And when you think about it, what we call the “body” is actually not the body. It is our visual or tactile experience.

It’s astonishing to think of this. He is saying that the whole level of feeling, that is so basic, and so convincing, is fundamentally deceptive. There is a fundamental mistake already there; the whole idea that there is this big gulf between the self and the world is already a deception. In fact, the world and I couldn’t be closer. The world is creating me and I am creating the world. There is no “me” without the world and no “world” without me.

Then he says, “When we talk about feeling, we usually think in terms of a feeling toward someone else. You fall in love with someone; you are angry with someone. In that imagery, the other person is all-important, and you are insignificant. Or, on the other hand, you feel slighted or you want to be loved. In that case, you are all important, and the others are all insignificant. Feeling plays that introvert/extrovert game of making itself important by reflecting off of the other. But in reality nobody is actually involved but yourself. You are alone and are creating the whole game by yourself.” Thereby, he dismisses centuries of romantic love!

He continues, “Understanding feeling is very revealing about how you relate to things. Feeling involves the pretense that you are involved with somebody. But really, you are only beating your own head against the wall. You constantly search further and further, thinking you are going to get at something, but ultimately you are still beating your head against the wall. There is no answer to feeling’s search. No savor for it.”

Then Trungpa says, “This is why the Buddha dharma is an atheistic teaching,” atheistic meaning, there is no ultimate being out there. “We have to accept that ours is a lonely journey. Studying the second skandha of feeling can be extremely important in helping us to realize that the whole journey is made alone, independent of anybody else. Still we are trying to beat ourselves against something all the time.”

The whole point is that the “I” who thinks she is alone is a complete fiction. You could also say that the trouble is that I am looking for something outside of myself, when the reality is that I am completely joined with everything at every moment. So how could I possibly be lonely? So the essence of this lonely journey that we are on is that we are constantly joined with everything all the time, and we’re not paying attention to that. We’re not noticing that. We’re seeing our self as against the world, and we’re bereft because we think we’re not getting what we need.

Then he says, “Somehow relating with the body-aspect of feeling goes much more in the direction of what is.” So he’s saying, “Trust the body.” In practice, trust the body. The body is going to be much more reliable. The virtue of the practice we do is so simple and rooted in the body. You hear that, and you think, This is just about the body but what about the real stuff that I need to clarify?  Well, quite counter-intuitively, the way you clarify that real stuff is through paying attention to the mind at the level of body. You might think, What good is that going to do me? The process that unfolds grounded in the body, he says, is going to be more reliable than trying to engage the mind in complicated analyses.

In response to a question about whether there is any point in “playing the game of feeling,” he says: “To stop playing the game of feelings is to let them be as they are. To let them come.” Oh here’s a positive feeling. There’s a negative feeling. There’s a neutral feeling. That’s not playing the game of feelings.

He continues, “If we practice like that we are not concerned with this or that anymore.” And this is a beautiful description, I think, of the awakened attitude toward life. “We go along very boldly, in a stubborn way. We just sail along. We have our own plow, our own tank. We are going to drive right along.” You know, no matter what happens we are going to go right along.

“Whether we are confronted by a house, a shop or a supermarket,” he says, “we will just drive right through it.” And that would be like our experiences right? Our feelings. Our likes and dislikes. Whatever happens, we have our little tank. We’re just going to plow on through. He says: “The whole point seems to be whether we have that bold attitude of being what we are and are willing to disregard the duality of that and this. We accept our negative side and the fact that we are a fool.” No matter what it is we are, we are just willing to go along with a bold attitude: Okay that’s fine. I’m a fool. That’s okay.

So that’s it. That’s Trungpa’s delightful, I think, description of the awakened mind. Doesn’t this sound doable? I am not saying it’s easy, but it sounds very down to earth. It sounds in line with his earlier remark about the “kitchen-sink level of practice.” So awakening is not being intoxicated by the world. Just live in it. Just get in your tank, idiot that you are, and go ahead living in the world.

Somebody asks a question about awakening. Why is there this difference of opinion between two schools? One school says that awakening is so far removed from anything we could know that one would have to be a Buddha. And the other school says, no, exalted as awakening is, it can also be in very ordinary lives.

He says, “I think there was a tremendous distrust in the definition of absolute, the absolute mind, Buddha-nature and its intelligence. That connects with our previous discussion about viewing Buddha as a great scholar. From the point of view where being enlightened is being a great scholar, any kind of feeble intelligence or feeble inspiration is regarded as manifestation of samsara.” In other words, you are either a Buddha or forget it. You are so distorted it’s not worth talking about.

Trunpa explains, “The people holding this view thought that in order to have a really good glimpse of the absolute, you had to have fantastic dramatic flashes and be an extraordinary person.” And you know that religions are full of these extraordinary persons, that we would never dream of being ourselves. We could never achieve what these great saints and geniuses achieved. There are some schools of Tibetan Buddhism in which there is this veneration of extraordinary people.

He continues, “They themselves did not have these experiences, but (we) imagine that they should have them. The other school, our school, says that awakened mind has to be something that is part of our everyday domestic experience of ego.” I am bringing this up because this is exactly true of our school as well. I think that is the reason why Trungpa was such a fan of Suzuki Roshi and felt so good when he met him. You could map this whole debate of Tibetan Buddhism almost exactly on to Soto and Rinzai Zen. In Soto as in Trungpa’s school, awakening is there, submerged and buried. We get flashes of it, but it’s not something that only Buddhas experience.

“The experience of awakened mind is extremely simply. It does not have to be dramatic. The faintest expression of intelligence is part of the awakened state of mind. So you do not have to build up a mythical notion of enlightened experience. It is something realistic and flashes of it happen constantly.” That viewpoint is the same as that of our tradition, of Soto Zen. After all, what is Dogen talking about when he says, “practice is awakening,” if not this?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have work to do, but it means we can do our work like the idiot in the tank, just going forward, without thinking that we are desperately in search of the peace that we need to complete ourselves. We can have some confidence and faith in our going forward. The fundamental point of our practice is right here in our lives. It is not something extraordinary or special.