Like many others, I’ve always found traditional Buddhist formulations of the five “aggregates” (Skt., skandhas) difficult to put into practice in my everyday life. For me, such teachings—which identify the five layers of existence that constitute human experience—had always landed in the zone of “interesting philosophically” but challenging to apply practically. This changed when I got to know the late American Zen teacher Bernie Glassman (1939–2018).
As a student in the early 1990s in the MFA writing program at Naropa Institute, a liberal arts college in Boulder, Colorado, founded by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, I often acted as chauffeur for Bernie, who was on the Naropa board and frequently flew in from New York for meetings. At this point I was still a junior Zen practitioner, and Bernie, as one of the first Americans to be officially sanctioned as a Zen teacher (having received transmission in the Zen lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi in 1976), seemed to me a larger-than-life, rather intimidating figure. He told me to call him Bernie, which helped put my nervousness at ease. And as I got to know him, through assisting and practicing alongside him in retreats, “Bernie” he remained.
I suspect Bernie eventually moved on from, or even forgot about, the particular presentation of the five skandhas that he made during an informal seminar with Naropa Zen practitioners. His take on the five, however, offered clarification that I found immediately useful— so much so that to this day I continue to use a version of it with students in my university meditation courses, many of whom have never before encountered Buddhist principles.
While translations and interpretations of the skandha system have differed, what they all share is a representation of five basic factors of human experience. Taken together, these factors explain the totality of what we think of as reality and, by extension, the self. A traditional presentation may look something like this:
1. Form (Pali, rupa)—the physical world
2. Sensation or Feeling (vedana)— not “sensations” or “feelings” as they’re meant in ordinary English usage, but our simplest responses to experience: like, dislike, or indifference
3. Perception (sanna)—again, not “perception” as conveyed by ordinary English, but the recognition or interpretation of sense objects followed by mental labeling.
4. Mental formations (sankharas)— volitional mental actions, triggered by some object, that produce karma
5. Consciousness (vinnana)—cognizance, including thoughts, which this system views as sense objects perceived through the “sense gate” of the mind
A central point in this system is that all the factors that make up our experience are ever-changing, subject to conditions, ungraspable, and impermanent, therefore giving rise to suffering. And a “self ” cannot be found in any of them.
Overall, this presentation that I first learned in my Zen training is clear and useful enough, but start digging into the individual terms and the teaching becomes a lot fuzzier. For one thing, a number of the terms as translated differ from their common English meanings. And according to the traditional view of the fourth skandha, “mental formations,” its factors can include everything from emotions like envy to intentional states of mind and action like right livelihood to seemingly involuntary ones like lethargy. Perhaps one can see why I, for one, always found the system’s technicalities to be interesting food for thought but difficult to actually grasp, much less put into practice. By saying that, however, I do not intend to find fault with the original system. Instead, we might speculate that these concerns about accessibility were what provoked Bernie to reframe the five skandhas teaching into a more usable version for Western students.
Bernie’s version departed from the original in several ways, but most useful for me was the clear distinction he made between direct, moment-to-moment experiences and the mental projections we add on top of those experiences—the confusion between the two being a primary cause of suffering. Of course, what he presented was a reframing of the traditional system, but for a somewhat unusual reason. Beginning meditation students may not be ready for the deeper teachings of non-self that are a part of traditional presentations of the aggregates, but the distinction between moment-to-moment experience and the mental fabrications we add to it is a point that even new students can quickly grasp. Sometimes this realization in itself can be transformative.
Although I may have altered some terms slightly in the intervening years, Bernie’s version of the five skandhas, presented as a chain of progression from one to the next, basically went like this:
1. Sensation—direct experience, through the senses, of the physical world. Similar to the traditional version of “form,” although perhaps this version clarifies the point that even what we think of as objective physical reality is already mediated through our senses.
2. Feeling—our simplest internal response to any sensation: like, dislike, or indifference. This is the same as the traditional system.
3. Reaction—the feeling of like, dislike, or neutrality provokes a reaction that ranges from leaping to our feet at a loud sound to subtle contraction or relaxation in the body. Such reactions may also include complex emotional responses like anger, fear, or envy—and thus include aspects of the traditional fourth skandha, mental formations.
4. Recognition/Interpretation— the mind catches up with an experience and applies a label to it. In the example above, we’ve heard a sound (sensation), disliked it (feeling), and leaped to our feet (reaction) before realizing it’s a car backfiring. This is essentially the same as the traditional third skandha.
5. Consciousness—as Bernie explained, this is just ordinary human consciousness as average people experience it. The key aspect for our purposes is that this is where we download the storehouse of past experiences and concepts and thereby obscure the direct experience of the first skandha (sensation), often creating confusion and suffering in the process.
With beginning students, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll often present the fifth skandha as just “the story.” In the above example, this is where our mind latches onto the loud sound and runs off thinking about our neighbor’s noisy car: how he’s probably disconnected the emission system and is pumping out noxious chemicals, damaging the health of the planet; how it is that we’ve become so dependent on fossil fuels to begin with; and how, if we don’t do something to intervene, the human race is probably doomed, and so on. Our minds have turned a simple sound into the end of the world!
Presenting the fifth aggregate as “the story” does not include everything the traditional formulation implies; nonetheless, it allows students to quickly grasp the fundamental point: that there’s a big difference between what happens to us and what we bring to that experience. There lies a key to relieving suffering and creating a more satisfying life for ourselves and those around us.
For example, we may all have days in which nothing bad actually happens to us, but how often is there a day when we don’t find some excuse to suffer? Our suffering in this case is caused by confusing reality with concepts and judgments based largely on past experience—by our conditioning, in other words—importing fear and other painful emotions into an otherwise neutral or even benign moment. For this reason, I now call the five skandhas the “five conditions,” a term pulled from a common version of the Heart Sutra, a core text of Mahayana Buddhism.
By applying mindful attention to the unfolding of the five conditions, I tell my students, we may be able to catch ourselves reacting according to our conditioning—perhaps at first only at the level of the story—and instead realize: I’m upsetting myself because I’m running a story; nothing has really happened to justify this level of upset. The result? Perhaps we can let go, return to direct experience, and spare ourselves unnecessary suffering.
Stories, of course, are made up of thoughts—those mental sound bites that intrude upon direct experience, and that we let go of in meditation. The more we learn to let go of thoughts, the more we gain the ability to drop our negative stories. As we continue to practice, we may begin to catch ourselves earlier in the chain—perhaps even noticing dislike at the feeling level and choosing a mindful response rather than automatic reaction.
This practice may sound simple, but it has huge ramifications. How many relationships are ruined because of mental projections, fabrications, stories of past wrongs and rejections? How many wars have started over ideas that had little to do with reality?
Meditation is the tool we use to let go of unskillful thoughts, and we can put this into practice in our daily lives by being mindful of the five conditions. And so, like many of the other skillful means he invented to adapt the dharma to contemporary America, Bernie’s approach to the skandhas continues to help students in ways he may never have anticipated.