The 4 Immeasurables and the 5 Skhandas

Acharya Richard John was teaching on the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma (aka the Hiniyana) in September 2007 at the DC Shambhala Center. As part of his overview of the first turning (essentially the Four Noble Truths), he talked a bit about the Five skhandas (or ‘heaps’). Some newer students asked me for some more information on how to actually work with this contemplation.
I usually do it combined with, or alternating with, the 4 Immeasurables – Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity.
Religious author/maverick Karen Armstrong, in her biography of Shakyamuni Buddha, said that it was alternating the 4 Immeasurables and the contemplation of the 5 skhandas that led to the Big Guy’s liberation. I personally think she is barking up the right tree.

While this should really taught by a qualified teacher who has embodied them for years, As there is none available, I can give you the quickie version.

Repeat this:
“May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be liberated from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from the happiness that is free from sorrow.
May they rest in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion”.

It is imperative that one must have a direct experiential understanding of Equanimity, Loving-Kindness, Compassion, and Joy before going on – especially before going into Vajrayana practice.

.5.Equanimity – “May they rest in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.” Seeing there is no difference between yourself and others, and that all events-good or bad, happy or sad-are not as much as a big deal as we make them out to be.
This step makes it much easier to do everything that comes afterwards.  At this point, it will probably be very conceptual, and very difficult. Traditionally, one would build up to this sense of equanimity after first going through the other Immeasurables.  So, just do the best you can at this point. We will be coming back to it.

The best way to understand equanimity is to examine yourself and find out exactly where “you” are.
For over 2500 years, people have been exploring themselves through what we call the five skhandas–Form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness. (It is VERY important to examine the last of these before going for ‘higher states of consciousness’).  It is pretty much using scientific method – hypothesis (in this case, that “there is a self”), experimentation (analyzing this “self”), observation of results, and conclusions.  The only thing a little different is that, at the end of all the analysis once once reaches conclusions, you don’t say “ok, that’s interesting” and then go off and watch “American Idle” or whatever.  You reach that point, and you rest there for a while.  This is the big difference that Shakimuni Buddha introduced – letting any insights reached have time and space to really “sink in”.

A) Form – We all seem to accept that we all have permanent, lasting selves that continue pretty much the same from birth to death.  This is the “I” that we all fight to make things better for.

So, examine your body to find out EXACTLY where “you” are in this thing. Where exactly are “you”? Are you in your big toe? In your foot? What is a foot anyway? Is the skin on the outside “foot”? The muscles? The bone? The bone marrow? Break it down to the cellular level, and beyond. Is one particular atom in your foot “you”? Where does “foot” end and “leg” begin? Go up through your body, examining every part of it, and think, “is this ‘me ” From the bottom through your internal organs (stopping at the sex organs and examining them closely, because a lot of people think that those body parts Are “I”) up to the head. Also, is the “I” now the same as “I” when you were 10? If you reach 70, will you be the same “I” you are now? And if not, then why are you so damn worried about doing stuff to make things ready for that theoretical person who may not even get a chance to exist?
When you get to your brain, is there one part of your brain that is “I”? (Remember, we all think that “I” is a solid, singular entity).  Yes, Science can monitor where different brain activities are occuring. But activity is happening in different areas at different times.  Some of these chunks can be removed, and there is still a functioning human there. However, is that the same person? Also, if that batch of gray matter is all that “I” is, then why the hell are we all so obsessed with all the other bits?I’ll get back to the brain/mind later.
a. Remember how many body parts can be either replaced or transplanted now, which makes it unlikely they are “I”.  Think – we can replace limbs, internal organs (hearts, lungs, intestines, etc.), faces, even sex organs. If “I” is in your leg, if it gets replaces with a synthetic one (or say, you get like the “Six Million Dollar Man” from the 70s and get cool bionic #@$# installed in place of the original parts), are “you” less of “you” because those parts are gone?b. Also, remember science tells us that every single cell in our bodies is replaced at least once every 7 years. Since that is so, in a very real sense, the “I” that you were has NOTHING physically in common with the “I” now.  Keep looking for that moving target…keep looking…When you get exhausted searching, rest in that. As I said before, this resting is critical, and is the difference in learning that Buddha discovered. If you get to a point of reasoning, and can go no further, if you rest in that ‘halted mind’ for a few minutes, that insight will REALLY sink in and become a part of you. So, when you get to this point of exhausting all concepts, JUST REST.Now, apply the same logic to the outside world (here’s some of that equanimity). See that absolutely everyone and everything is made up of a bunch of constantly changing parts, like you. (This, btw, is what we mean by “emptiness”-empty of a solid, lasting self-definitely not “nothingness”).  Everything and everyone is a moving target, which has quite a few ramifications.  So, for example, If you ‘get’ a relationship with someone, one of the realities that follows is that you should not be surprised when (not if) they change.  Since all of the dharma is about removing suffering and worry from one’s life (nothing more), it should lead you to worry less, by knowing – REALLY knowing – that change is going to happen.Now, think that “There is no difference between you and anyone else in this way.
Everyone is exactly like you in this manner.”
Repeat this logic over and over, and then rest in it.

On another level, think to yourself “I want happiness and to be free from suffering.” “My partner wants happiness and to be free from suffering. My cat/mom/friends/exs/enemies/George W./, indeed, everyone just wants to be happy and free from suffering. There is no difference between myself and them in this way. Everyone wants the same thing. We are all the same in this.”
Between the breaking down of the world into infinite pieces and realizing that everyone wants the same thing and wants to avoid the same thing, you should have some sense of equanimity, which will be very useful (indispensable, in fact) for the next parts of the 4 Is.

1) Loving-Kindness – “May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.”
Because you have had some experience of equanimity, this one will be easier than if you hadn’t. Think of the person closest to you. Notice how you feel, how you wish for them to be happy. Extend that feeling out, to your closest family. Now to your closest friends. Now to friends that you aren’t so close to. Now extend the same feeling of wishing they were happy (since that is what they and everyone else wants) to people you see on the street, but don’t know. Extend it to complete strangers. Now, (the tough part) extend it to your enemies. Past romantic rivals. Bosses who screwed you over in the past. Ex-boyfriends who were dickweeds. George W. Bush. Bin Laden. Dick Chenney. Carrot Top. Whoever you hate the most in your day-to-day life, extend that wish that they be happy. Extend it to everyone and every living creature you can think of.

I found it best to centralize those feelings in my heart center and extend outwards, to give it all a more vicseral feeling. You will likely feel a trembling at your heart center, and may want to think that light is extending out from your heart (if you are a more visual person). If you have done the Shambhala ‘Windhorse’ practice, this is exactly the same feeling.

Rest in that for a little bit, because it will be refined as….

2) Compassion – “May they be liberated from suffering and the causes of suffering”.
This builds on loving kindness. Not only do you wish that people are happy, you wish they don’t suffer by contemplating a bit how they do suffer. From the previous parts, you should automatically have a wish that people don’t suffer, and are happy (keeping in mind that they don’t exist on a permanent, lasting level). Extend out the wish for beings to be happy as before, but now think of how different people suffer. You can fill in your own examples; I’ve provided a few to get you started. A recent teacher gave the instruction to:

A) think of all those living in fear (ex. Iraqi citizens, women in Sudan who are under constant threat of rape, Palestinian and Israeli parents who don’t know if this morning will be the last time they see their kids alive, etc.)

B) All those living in extreme hardship (ex. People in the remote areas of Afghanistan, the survivors of the most recent natural disaster, people trying to survive on minimum wage here, farmers in Africa, etc.)

C) All those undergoing intolerable pain, both:
i. Physical (ex. Soldiers who’ve had a limb blown off in Iraq, Aids victims in Zimbabwe or China wasting away since they can’t get life-saving drugs, cancer patients, others with illnesses that are slowly killing them, etc.) and
ii. Mental (ex. Parents who just had soldiers carrying a folded flag come to their door, people who lost their whole family in the 2004 Tsunami, Old people who have just lost their spouse of 40 + years, etc.)

D) All those who are consumed by hatred (ex. Bin Laden, George W., Don Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rush Limbaugh, etc.) (You can wish for the last category that “they be happy, and free of suffering, and no longer cause suffering to themselves or others”)
You will likely have a similar sensation of emanating out of your heart as before, but it may feel heavy. One teacher described it as “tasting ones’ own heart for the first time”.

You may find yourself crying after doing this, and filled with the burning wish that all these stop suffering. That is what compassion is REALLY all about.

So, once you realize this, then you can move into:
3) Rejoicing (aka Sympathetic Joy)—“ May they never be separated from the happiness that is free from sorrow”.  This works on a couple of levels. First, on one level, it is being glad whenever something good happens to them.  This is really good for counteracting jealously, which I find to be a real pain-in-the-ass poisonous emotion, since one can really easily justify it to oneself.

For example, If one finds themselves in a love triangle (or love square or some other trapazoid), cultivating this Immeasurable is a very good way to ensure you don’t show up on “Cops” or “America’s Most Wanted”. In that case, one would geniunely be happy for whoever you love that they are with someone that makes them happy, even if that person is not you. (Of course, in this case, it also helps to have accomplished the contemplation that convinces you that neither “you” or either of “them” is so solid anyway, making the whole emotion seem a little silly.)

Beyond this somewhat mundane level, this Rejoicing is another way of saying “may everyone realize that they are not as solid as they think, and no longer suffer ever again. May they be enlightened.”  (Enlightenment is considered to be “the happiness free from sorrow.”  Or, as one teacher said, “It’s pretty much the same as life was before, only you don’t worry nearly as much.” :))
Imagine all those suffering beings happy (the ‘light emanating from the heart’ works well- imagine it envelopes all these suffering beings, and they smile and all their sorrows are lifted never to return). Resolve that whatever ‘spiritual’ practice you engage in, may it actually accomplish the removal of their sorrows. (note- personally, I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘spiritual’ – it’s kind of a loaded phrase with all kinds of overtones I think pretty much suck.)
So, we are now back to:
4.Equanimity – “May they rest in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.” Seeing there is no difference between yourself and others, and that all events-good or bad, happy or sad-are not as much as a big deal as we make them out to be.
At this point, it should be MUCH easier than it was when you started this process.  For myself, I find it is simply taking the first three and sort of combining them and really sending those thoughts to literally everyone on earth (and to any life elsewhere in the universe).  Really, really extending out one’s positive thoughts to all beings.  Some people like to talk about it being like a positive prayer, which can actually help those beings.  I don’t talk about that myself.  Personally, I think it would be literally impossible to design a legit experiment that controlled for all variables.  What I DO know is that it can help and transform the one actually doing the practice.

Rest in that feeling. After doing this cycle a few times and getting the hang of it, it may possibly be the most blissful experience you’ve ever had. (ok, it may be neck-and-neck with that fabulous orgasm you had about 4 years ago, or whenever ;))

Just one little thing to finish up: the search for “you”.

There are four more parts of the Five Skhandas after Form.

B) Feelings. Are you your feelings? When you are in love, are you “love”? When you are in pain, are you “pain”? If you accept the definition we all accept that I am a continuous, lasting object, then this cannot be true. If it were, you would have EXACTLY the same feeling ALL the time, instead of alternating between pleasurable and un-pleasurable feelings. Feelings arise, abide, and cease all the time.  But “You” don’t. So, logically, “feelings” can’t equal “you.”

  Also, where exactly ARE those feelings? For example, if “in love”, you may say that ‘butterflies in the heart’ feeling. BUT, earlier on, when contemplating Form, you already concluded that the heart ISN’T you.  Plus, if you had a heart transplant, and had the ‘butterflies in the heart’, does that mean that someone else’s heart is now “you”? How is it logically possible that a part of of someone else now IS the “you” you’ve suffered so much to make happy since you were a baby?   If that’s true, then what is going on here?

C) Perceptions. Some say “you are what you perceive”. However, if you apply the same logic from feelings, then this cannot possibly be ‘you’. Perceptions are constantly shifting. If your perceptions were the lasting, continuous ‘you,’ you would still be watching last night’s “Daily Show” or whatever.Plus, how often have your perceptions fooled you? We have all had the experience of mistaking someone for somebody else.  Also, if someone were in, say, an IMAX theatre getting their brain monitored, and had been in their long enough for the illusion to totally fool them that they were flying, and someone with a twisted sense of humor replaced the film with one of a camera falling off a cliff straight down to the bottom of a canyon, then your perceptions would tell you that  “you” were about to die of falling, even though the reality would simply not be true.  And if the perceptions were telling ‘you’ that you were dying, how could that perception also BE that “you” that was being told be your sense data “i’m about to hit the ground really fast?”

The classical Buddhist image is of confusing a coiled rope in the dark for a snake, being terrified, but then when light falls on the floor, you see it’s simply a rope and feel a sense of relief or even laughter. The actual reality hasn’t changed. Only your perceptions. And, since these changed, perceptions are not you.
D) Formations (also called “volition”, or “compositional factors” – I still haven’t found a translation of this term I am totally happy with). This is a big category, including ‘all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object.[8 ]

For myself, I found what works best is to focus on one part – “personality”. Find your personality. What is “personality”? Where in your body is it? Is it the same from day to day? Is it the same personality you ‘were’ when you were a teen-ager? (By Grabthar’s Hammer, I hope not. :)) If you are sad, does that mean you personality has changed? If you can’t find it in your body, and can’t define exactly what it is, It can’t be “you”. Also, if you say “so-and-so is an asshole”, what exactly are you refering to? Where does the assholeness reside?  Are they an asshole to everyone always? When you refer to someone on the basis of a “personality trait”, stop and think exactly what it is you are talking about./div>

Which leads to…
5) Consciousness. We all act as if there is some continuous self underlying everything. After eliminating all the categories above as “I”, however, all that might be left is the actual thinking process. Some would call it a ‘soul’ (or ‘atman’, to use the sanskrit jargon). However, if you just sit and watch your thoughts arise, sit there, and cease, you may well question: where are these thoughts coming from? Where do they go to? What does my thinking this second have to do with my thinking a few seconds ago, let alone last week/month/year? What you will likely find (what I found, at least) is that I couldn’t find for myself where this “I” was.  And, even if I had a machine telling me which parts of my brain were being triggered at different times, it still wouldn’t tell me ‘YOU ARE HERE’.  As I said, it’s all a moving target.So there you have it. (and all in a non-“religious” context. )
The point of all this is to get rid of an underlying idea that “this is ME.”
This isn’t just idle thinking that sounds neat when you are stoned.  If you REALLY let it sink in, thinking about all this really will make your self-grasping (and therefore your suffering) lessen.

Trust me, I can tell you from experience—After going through the above (I usually alternate the 4 Immeasurables (which is said to build an understanding on a relative level) and the 5 skhandas (which is said to build an understanding on an absolute level). When I do the practices I’ve been given involving visualizations, etc., the result feels much more stable and much more powerful.To some extent, if you do these properly, it just might be all you need to get to “the happiness free from sorrow.”

And that’s today’s lesson.


(originally posted 9/17/08; rewritten and expanded 5/19/09)


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Filed under black swan, Dharma teachings

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