Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

Message from Henry: Five Skandhas

August 12, 2015

When like and dislike do not arise, the Way stands clear.  – from the Shinjinmei


These are the five “skandhas” or “aggregates”:

  1. matter or form (rupa),
  2. sensation or feeling (vedana),
  3. perception or recognition (sañña),
  4. mental formations or reactions (sankhara),
  5. consciousness (viññana).

The five skandhas are not just basic elements of experience, but constitute stages in a process, according to early Buddhist psychology. Basically, they break down the process by which sensation leads to action. The purpose of this breakdown was or is to help practitioners to intervene in the process by which our reactions to sensations lead us into karmic activity.

First, matter (forms or phenomena) makes contact with one or more of our senses. Thus sensation, the second skandha, arises. This sensation already contains an estimation of pleasure, pain or neutrality associated with the sense-experience. The third step is perception, or recognition, in the sense of recognizing or identifying the sense-experience. Some commentators feel this step implies a linguistic element. The fourth stage, mental formation or reaction, refers to the responses and reactions, habitual and otherwise, that are triggered by the experience happening. And finally the fifth element, consciousness, is what allows for cognizance of all stages in this process.

The first two steps are involuntary, and by the time the fourth is forming it may already be too late to intervene. So we are encouraged to become more alert to stages two, three and four – sensation (positive, negative, neutral), recognition or identification, and mental reaction. This is where we can learn to catch what is going on within our minds and not let it carry us away – right in the zone where like and dislike, or craving and aversion, become active. This is where our work lies. As the Shinjinmei says..

When like and dislike do not arise, the Way stands clear.

So this insight into our human way of being and acting can guide us to sit patiently with our likes and dislikes, and watch them arise and fall away, all by themselves. Likewise we can learn to watch our judging, our assessing, and let them be what they are – phenomena that arise and pass. No need to try to get rid of them. No need to get rid of anything — which is a most fundamental message of Zen.

* * *

Another point:

In the alternate economy of Zen, things seem to get turned on their heads…

Our strengths may turn out to have been obstacles or weaknesses, and our weaknesses strengths.

This might seem to make no sense, but when we consider that the Zen way asks us to study and to forget the self, as Dogen says, maybe it’s not so strange.

With love and thanks,


Message from Henry – excerpted from our August 12, 2015 newsletter.

Image Credit: The Self+The Path, by Hartwig HKD, CC by-ND 2.0, from

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