<< back to Teachings by Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Abhidharma - 5 Skandas (Talk 3 of 3)

Volition and Consciousness

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 20, 2005
In topic: Buddhist Psychology
Third in a Study of the Five Skandas - Form, Feeling, Perception, Volition, Consciousness -using Chogyam Trungpa's book "Glimpses of Abhidharma"
Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.



Abhidharma 5 Skandhas Talk 3

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

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


Continuing with our discussion of Trungpa’s Glimpses of Abhidharma, I want to reflect on the next three chapters: Intellect, Meditation and Consciousness. This is his discussion of the fourth and fifth skandhas.

To review, with the first skandha, rupa (form), physicality, the world, comes to exist. With the second skandha, vedana (feeling), we begin to recognize that there is something there and that it has an impact on us, and so we begin to react to that. With the third skandha, somja (perception), we start to fill in the details and begin subtly to make the world in our own image, to distort things further and to cover the walls of our prison with murals and paintings of our own construction.

The fourth skandha, samskara, is usually translated as impulses or volitions or formations. I think it is very interesting that Trungpa decides to use the word “intelligence,” which is never used to describe samskara. But he has an interesting way of thinking about it. 

With samskara, we begin to deal with this world we have created and elaborated for ourselves. Acting on it, doing something effective with it. So this is the whole realm of volition, desire, action, and so on. Taking the world into our own hands and beginning to make something of it. The skandha of samskara is especially about the inner conditions that make our actions possible; in other words, our emotions, our feelings, our intentions, our motivations and so on. These are the energies that give rise to our physical actions and to our speech.

So you could say that samskara is a lot like vedana. It is a kind of reactivity to the world. But the difference is that vedana, which is usually translated as feeling, is a basic, simple, primitive reaction that is the foundation of a world we put together, whereas samskara is a more developed and complicated engagement with the world. In other words, to use more psychological concepts, vedana is the unconscious. One of the aspects of practice is that you begin to make vedana conscious. You begin to see how you have this deep-seated reactivity to almost everything that is just below the surface of consciousness. Vedana is very visceral, very primitive; samskara is much more sophisticated and nuanced.

So I think that Trungpa’s use of the word intelligence is very interesting, because what we call intelligence, which which we usually think of as producing truth and accurate thought, is already duped. Intelligence is already seduced by this whole situation that we have erroneously created. Intelligence actually becomes an agent of deception and intoxication. So I think when he uses the word intelligence, he wants to point out to us that our highly valued sense of intelligence is also tricky and not entirely reliable.

It may seem as if samskara is entirely negative, that everything in the samskara category is negativity and confusion. But that’s not true. In fact, many of the samskaras, many of the emotions and impulses and volitions that arise in us are positive, virtuous factors. A lot of the things that come up in the samskara category are positive, but most of them are not. Most of them are negative, their source being aggression, fear, desire. But even the positive ones, even the samskaras that are positive, like kindness and compassion, are are potentially problematic, because we are liable to attach to them too strongly or make too big a deal out of them. You know: Oh, I’m so kind. I’m such a kind person. I am being kind to you now aren’t I? In other words, we identify too strongly with these positive qualities, or hold them up as somehow real.

Even the positive samskaras are potentially problematic. But a big advantage of the positive ones over the negative ones is that the positive ones are calmer. They do lead us down a path where we will eventually see how deceptive all the samskaras are, and we might eventually become liberated from this. In other words, the positive samskaras, although they are not without their problems, can potentially lead us in the direction of awakening, whereas the negative ones create a lot of problems. They tend to lead to a kind of spiraling situation of confusion and unwise action, hurting ourselves and other people.

There are samskaras called generosity, compassion, kindness. And there are samskaras called aggression, anger, fear, pride. The kind of samskaras that will arise in our consciousness at any given instant are largely conditioned by the samskaras that have arisen in the consciousness in the past. Positive experiences from the past tend to produce positive experiences in the present. Negative experiences in the past tend to produce negative experiences in the present. So the point here is to recognize that all the samskaras, even the positive ones are basically, potentially problematic. But it does make sense to accumulate the positive ones, since in doing so, we are going to minimize the bad momentum and the unhappiness, and it is going to maximize the possibility that we could actually see through this whole situation.

The fifth skanda is called vijnana (consciousness). In some of the abhidharma systems, there’s not much said about consciousness. In one of the ancient texts, it says that consciousness is a tautology, a non-event. The argument goes something like this: we know there is form, feeling, perception and volition arising in the mind; this must take place within some sort of a field; and so we call that field consciousness.

In the usual abhidharma explanation, consciousness is the name of the field, but it isn’t a separate thing. There is no consciousness apart from that which arises within consciousness. It’s just that we give it the name consciousness. So in that sense it’s a tautology, it’s a cypher, it’s a non-event. There is no separate entity called consciousness into which we put things. Consciousness is just what we call the totality of all the things that appear. In fact, this a basic thought in Buddhism, that consciousness is not a substance apart from the arising of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and so on. If it were a substance, if it were some stuff apart from what arises within itself, that would be a sort of deity, a sort of God. And Buddhism starts from the proposition that there isn’t something like that. There is no metaphysical ground.

Our mind and our life recognize and depend on consciousness, on a relationship in which everything is occurring. Our life is not made of isolated moments of a bunch of unrelated stuff happening here and there. It is a total situation into which we are plugged. To be a Buddha, to be liberated, is to embrace this total situation, even though it doesn’t exist other than its elements, without separating ourselves from the situation and defining ourselves as outside of it.  So in this sense, you might say the definition of Buddha is consciousness; the definition of consciousness is Buddha. Consciousness is not something in and of itself, but a way of approaching and appreciating everything – the totality of the situation of things arising.

Trungpa approaches consciousness from a slightly different perspective. He actually uses the concept of the unconscious from Western psychology for consciousness. He says that consciousness is partly unconscious and partly carries with it our past experiences. We may not be aware of the conditioning in our present way of being and feeling. And also consciousness, for Trungpa, has within it a perfume or a flavor of the ego sense. You know the sense: I am here. This is me being aware of all this.

In other words, consciousness for Trungpa, the way he understands this fifth skandha, is the subtle underlying awareness of a subject, which automatically taints things. There is a difference between the classical abhidharma idea of consciousness, which is not tainted in this way, and Trungpa’s presentation, which does include a kind of fundamental taint and confusion.

From the abhidharmic point of view, things flash up into existence; a total situation flashes up into existence and then passes away. Gone. And then another total situation flashes into existence and passes away. As in a movie, you have images, one after another that seem to move through time. In fact, there is an image, space, another image, space, another image, space. And that is what our life actually is. In that space is awakening. Every now and then, when ignorance slips up, we may spontaneously experience a moment of the recognition of something bigger.  

The fifth skandha, consciousness, requires a certain amount of explanation, since we already used the word consciousness at the beginning of the seminar in relation to the skandha of form, as containing the eight kinds of consciousnesses. This is really important, because in Buddhist thought, as opposed to Western thought, there is no distinction between consciousness and physicality. In Western thought, there is a huge gap between mind and matter. But in Buddhism there is no gap. Matter is simply a much slower form of consciousness. It’s consciousness slowed down to the point where it appears as a thing in the world.

There is a recognition, of course, that there is difference between the two. That is why there is rupa and there are the other skandhas; but that difference is small compared to the sameness in which everything is consciousness. Many philosophical problems in Western thought simply don’t exist in Buddhist thought. For example, in Western thought, there is the big gap between God and the world. Right? Because God is non-material and the world is material. Big jump, big gap there right? Exile, suffering, so forth. But Buddhism never had that gap, because it has always seen matter and mind as one thing.

Trungpa also distinguishes between mind and consciousness. In the Buddhist tradition, mind is purely that which perceives. It does not require brain work. It is simply perception, just on the level of the nervous system. This simple instinctive function is called mind. The Sanskrit term is citta, which literally means “heart” but also means “essence.” The basic essence of mind contains the faculty of perception. This kind of perception called “mind” reacts to hot and cold, favorable and unfavorable, in a very direct, simple and subtle way.

Consciousness, on the other hand, is articulated and intelligent. It is the fully developed state of being that contains all the previous elements and includes the thinking process.

Consciousness is the egoistic quality that runs behind the thoughts. I’m here. Is this good for me? Do I like this? Do I not like this? Can I make use of this? In the kind of consciousness he is talking about, in our human awareness, there is already a problem. To see through the situation and to understand its deception and its intoxication is to purify consciousness.

So, the intention is to situate oneself within experience so that you are not caught any more in It’s good. It’s bad. I like it. I don’t like it.  Instead, your relationship to experience is:  Here is what is. Meditation practice makes that possible. Do you understand that point? How true is it in your own experience? What have you discovered about that for yourself in your meditation practice?