Recently I have been studying the nature of the five skandhas or “aggregates,” which is a Buddhist classification of aspects of experience broken down into five sets: form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saṃjñā), volition (saṃskāra), and consciousness (vijñāna). Classically, the idea is that what is commonly assumed to be the enduring, substrative Self-identity must in some sense be related to these aforementioned aggregates—that the Self, if it does truly exist, must be either identical to all of the aggregates as a composite, to some of them in particular, or none of them at all. Through an exhaustive interrogation of each of these aspects of experience, one finds that each of these aspects are only momentary and dependently arisen. Even consciousness, which we tend to assume is homogeneously and independently enduring in the background of experience, consists of a succession of discrete moments that includes a subject of awareness, an object of awareness and the process of being aware.
So since all of the aggregates are only composed of specific elements that only exist for a moment, none of them can be the basis of a Self, since whatever counts as a Self must be in some sense enduring and substantial. Neither can the Self be something other than these aggregates, for when we look for any thing in experience that cannot be in some sense classified and included as a member in one of the five sets, we find none.
This analysis of the skandhas (which I will eventually outline at some point on this blog) has been an instrumental part of my current meditation practice.
After spending a bit settling into my body, tending to my current feelings, sensations and dispositions, I begin contemplating on the skandhas, moving from form to feeling to perception to volition to consciousness (in effect, moving from coarse to subtle). This contemplation first starts off as a conceptual elaboration on each set, including the kinds of senses found as members of each set. Then the contemplation moves from conceptual elaboration to an awareness of the skandhas in immediate experience. After reaching (some kind of) awareness of consciousness as input from sense organs rather than as an a-priori background field, I bring my awareness to the oscillation of my breath.
After a certain degree of focused attention on the oscillating breath, I try to abide by or rest with the oscillation without putting too much concentration upon it. Then a general, rather than particular, awareness of experience begins. After not very long, my attention is brought to particulars, and so I recycle the process from attention to the breath to abiding with the breath to generalizing awareness. So,
what is the point?
(…I cannot give any clear answer, but can bring some reflections that may be useful for some—they have definitely being useful for me for strengthening both my faith in the Buddha’s dharma (teaching) and my faith in the possibility of gaining fruits from this liberating path…)
…to allow the arising of phenomena to express itself, without the discrimination of elements or aspects of experience to enter into relation with a subject as its object. This allows the independence of arising from classification.
It must be emphasized that we are not allowing the independence of discriminated elements, for this merely reinforces the discriminatory function; we are not identifying elements as particulars, giving name to them through notional universals and only then giving them independence—we are cultivating a form of cognition that does not immediately register and classify aspects of experience as positive or negative. Instead we allow independence before identifying anything in particular.
Without discrimination, there is no ultimate identification since identification is only a composition of discriminations.
Without discrimination, there is no ultimate permanence since there is nothing in particular to be observed to arise from non-existence, abide momentarily, and then cease existence.
Without discrimination, there is no ultimate dissatisfaction since there is nothing found in dis-unity, separation, segregation or isolation.
Only through cognition based upon discrimination and classification do we face the problem of no-self, impermanence and suffering. With enough practice, through repetition and remembrance, not only could it be possible to be in control of when the discriminatory function of intellectual analysis is used—but it may even be possible to operate without the need for discrimination, to engage with conventional, everyday existence while abiding in the state of ultimate realization, where there is no longer the duality of self and no-self, permanence and impermanence, satisfaction and suffering.
Without discrimination, there is nothing in particular but potentially everything in all.