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November 16, 2016

11:18 AM

Critique of the Buddhist Five Skandhas Doctrine, sections 1 and 2

© Copyright Avi Sion, 2016. All rights reserved. This essay will be a chapter in my next book.


In this essay, I shall critically comment on the Buddhist ‘five skandhas’ doctrine. This doctrine is attributed to the Buddha himself and considered as a core belief of Buddhism[1]. However, in my humble opinion, in view of its evident intellectual limitations, this doctrine should not be given such elevated status. Buddhism and its founder have much more intelligent ideas to offer the world. That being the case, the present critique of the five skandhas doctrine should not be taken as a general critique of Buddhism or its founder.


Although often listed in the literature, the five skandhas are rarely clearly defined and expounded on. The Sanskrit word skandha (Pali: khanda) means ‘aggregate’ – and apparently refers to a building-block, of the mind or perhaps of the world. In Sanskrit, the five skandhas listed are: rupa, vedana, samjna, samskara, vijnana (in Pali: rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana). In the dozens of English texts that I have read over the years, I have seen these terms translated in various ways, and with rare exceptions barely explained. It is not made clear whether these terms are essentially phenomenological, psychological, metaphysical, ontological or epistemological. When interpretations are proposed, they differ considerably from one text to another. Nevertheless, this being an important doctrine in Buddhism, it is worth analyzing and evaluating.


1. My own phenomenological reading

Before studying the normative interpretations of these terms, permit me to present my own initial interpretations, even while admitting that they are largely inaccurate historically. That way, the reader will know where I am coming from, and will be better able to follow my thinking. When I first came across the five skandhas in Buddhist books, I took them to constitute a sort of phenomenology, i.e. a list of the different categories of being or appearance, one that suggests an ontological and epistemological theory insofar as the list distinguishes and interrelates the categories in certain ways. Consider the following reading:

  • Rupa, usually translated as ‘form’, could be taken to refer to the apparently external and material world, which contains the phenomena of all shapes and sizes in motion that we seem to witness through our senses, the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. This field of experience is quantitatively overwhelming, and takes up most of our existence, but is of course not the whole story, not the whole of our world.
  • Vedana, usually translated as ‘sensation or feeling’, could be taken to refer more specifically to the phenomena we experience as within our personal body. In a sense, these are part of the external and material world, since our body is apparently part of it; but in another sense, they are closer to home (i.e. more internal) and less material (i.e. containing some phenomena notably different from those we experience further afield). In this context, our touch sensations of bodies beyond our own body are feelings, as are all the myriad physical sensations we experience within our bodies, such as sexual feelings (desire, satisfaction), digestive feelings (hunger, thirst, satiety, stomach aches, sensations when urinating or defecating, etc.), and feelings in other internal organs (headaches, heart beats, heartburn, muscular cramps, nerve pains, etc.). Here would also be included emotional reactions experienced within the body, such as love (a flutter or warmth in the heart region), fear (a flutter or warmth in the stomach region), etc. In short, all the pleasures and pains we may be subject to within our bodies, whether they stem from physical or mental causes. Also to be included under this heading would be our sensations of volition (acts of will), i.e. the sense we have that we move our body parts around and our whole body through space; and therefore also our sensations of velleity (pre-volitions, attitudes, intentions). Note however that, while volitions and intentions may have phenomenal aspects, they are largely non-phenomenal; i.e. they are intuited rather than perceived.
  • Samskara, usually translated as ‘mental formations’, and sometimes as ‘impulses to volition’, could be taken to refer to the inner phenomena we experience through our faculties of memory and imagination (the latter being voluntary or involuntary manipulation of memory items to produce somewhat new images, sounds, etc.). This includes the images of visualizations, the sounds of verbal thoughts, dreams (during sleep) and hallucinations (the latter being stronger projections, apparently into the space where matter resides, of imaginations). These phenomena resemble those experienced as external and material, in that they also have shape, color, sound, etc., and yet are experienced as substantially different, of a different ‘stuff’, so much so that we give them a different name (they are characterized as mental, as opposed to material), even if we do regard the mental phenomena, or phantasms, as derivatives of the material ones (through memory of experiences). Such mental phenomena obviously can and do condition (variously incite or otherwise affect) subsequent more overt actions.
  • Samjna, usually translated as ‘perception’, but often as ‘apperception’, ‘conception’ or ‘cognition’, could be taken to refer to our various objects of cognition, i.e. whatever we intuit (non-phenomenal concretes), whatever we perceive apparently through the physical senses or mentally through memory and imagination (phenomenal concretes), and all the abstractions and theories (based on the preceding items) that we construct through conceptual insight and reasoning (including negation, similarity, dissimilarity, etc.). Thus, samjna would include our non-phenomenal impressions (apperceptions), our phenomenal experiences (perceptions), and the concepts and thoughts (conceptions) emerging from the preceding through which we get, not merely to experience things, but also to order and interrelate them, and thus to understand them (or be confused by them) to various degrees. Thus, note well, samjna focuses on objects in the context of their being cognized, i.e. as contents of cognition (and not as objects apart from cognition).
  • Vijnana, usually translated as ‘consciousness’, could be taken to refer to the fact of cognition, the cognizing, as against its object (content), and its subject (the self apparently doing the cognizing). Consciousness has to be listed separately because it is substantially different from any of the other categories in our enumeration. Note well that, to assure a complete enumeration, this term in my view would have to include both the relation of cognition and the apparent self or soul which is related by it to the object. This refers to the self which we all routinely intuit – even though Buddhists deny the latter’s reality and consider it as illusory. This understanding is not entirely foreign to Buddhist practice, which tends to use the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘mind’ in an ambiguous manner that sometimes really (though typically without frankly admitting it) intends the self (i.e. the one who is conscious)[2]. Moreover, it should be stressed that the self not only cognizes, but also wills and values – i.e. that volition and valuation are among its powers as well as cognition, and that these three faculties are interdependent and do not exist without each other.

That is to say in our present perspective: while rupa refers to external and material objects, vedana to more specifically bodily objects, and samskara to mental objects, and while samjna identifies these same categories of objects as contents of cognitive acts, vijnana refers to the implied knowing (and willing and valuing) acts and to the spiritual entities (ourselves) apparently engaged in them. From this we see that the various phenomenological categories here enumerated overlap somewhat: rupa includes at least part of vedana, samskara is a side-effect of rupa and vedana, samjna includes the preceding experiences and adds their more complex conceptual and rational products, while vijnana focuses on the subject and the relationship of consciousness (and volition and valuation) between it and these various concrete and abstract objects.[3]

The above phenomenological account is merely, to repeat, my personal projection: it is the way I have in the past tended to interpret the five skandhas doctrine in view of the terminology used for it in English. This is the way I, given my own philosophical background, would build a theory of knowledge and being if I was forced to use these five given terms, even while aware that such theory contains some non-orthodox perspectives.


2. A more orthodox psychological reading

However, Buddhists and other commentators present these terms in a rather different light. I will use as my springboard an interesting account I have seen on this topic by Caroline Brazier in Buddhist Psychology[4]. Let us first look at this psychological approach, which I think is close to the original intent of the five skandhas doctrine, given that Buddhism is concerned with ‘enlightening and liberating’ people rather than with merely informing them to satisfy their curiosity. She writes:

“The skandhas are the stages in a process whereby the self-prison is created and maintained. At each stage, perception is infiltrated by personal agendas that create distortion. Delusion predominates…. Each of us continually seeks affirmation that we are that person who we have assumed ourselves to be. Situations that disturb this process are avoided or reinterpreted, and the self appears to become more substantial” (pp. 92-93).

Her exposition of the stages is as follows (summarily put, paraphrasing her). The first stage is rupa, which is finding indications of self in everything we come in contact with; i.e. grasping onto all sorts of things because they reinforce our belief in having a self, and indeed one with a specific identity we are attached to. Next in the process comes vedana, which refers to our immediate value-judgments in relation to things that we come across (people, events, whatever); we may find them attractive, repulsive or confusing – but in any case, we have a visceral reaction to them that affects our subsequent responses to them. Thirdly comes samjna, which consists in spinning further fantasies and thoughts around the things we have already encountered and initially reacted to; due to this, we are unconsciously carried off into certain habitual behavior-patterns. Samskara refers to these action and thought responses which we have, through repetitive past choices, conditioned ourselves into doing almost automatically. Finally comes vijnana, which refers more broadly to the mentality (perspectives and policies) we adopt to ensure our self is well-endowed and protected in all circumstances.

These five stages constitute a vicious circle, in that the later stages affect and reinforce the earlier ones. They ensure that we enter and remain stuck in the cycle of birth, suffering and death. The important thing to note is that the purpose of this psychological description is to make us aware of the ways we ordinarily operate, so that we may over time learn to control and change those ways, and become enlightened and liberated. As Brazier puts it: “Buddhism is not a matter of just going with the flow. It is about changing course” (p. 95). In this approach, the skandhas doctrine is a practical rather than theoretical one. It is a ‘skillful means’, rather than an academic exposition. It is concerned with the ways we commonly form and maintain of our ‘self’.

Needless to say, this looks like a very penetrating and valuable teaching[5]. The question for us to ask at this point, however, is whether it is entirely correct. That is to say, assuming the above sketch is an accurate rendition of the Buddhist theory of human psychology, is this the way we ordinary (unenlightened, unliberated) human beings actually function? Brazier, being a committed Buddhist, takes this for granted rather uncritically. I would answer that though this theory seems partially correct, it is certainly not fully so. What we have here, at first sight, is a portrait of someone who is (very roughly put): very narrow-minded (rupa), instinctive (vedana), irrational (samjna), habitual (samskara), and selfish (vijnana). This may fully describe some people, and it may partly describe all of us, but it is certainly not a complete picture of the ordinary human psyche.

What is manifestly missing in this portrait are the higher faculties of human beings – their intelligence, their reason and their freewill. It could be argued that these higher faculties are present in the background, in the implication that people can (and occasionally do) become aware of their said lowly psychological behavior and make an effort to overcome it. But if so, this should be explicitly included in the description. That is to say, intelligence, reason and freewill should be presented as additional skandhas. But they are not so presented – it is not made clear that humans can function more wisely, and look at the facts of a situation objectively and intelligently, and decide through conscious reasoning how to best respond, and proceed with conscious volition to do so. In any case, these higher faculties are routinely used by most people, and not just used for the purpose of attaining enlightenment and liberation.

Why are these higher faculties, which are common enough, even if to varying degrees, not mentioned in the Buddhist account as integral factors of the human psyche? I would suggest that the main reason is that the self (or soul) has to be dogmatically kept out of it[6]. The central pillar of the Buddhist theory of enlightenment and liberation is that our belief that we have a self is the deep cause of all our suffering, because a self is necessarily attached to its own existence, and the way out of this suffering is to realize that we do not really have a self and so do not need to attach to anything. In such a context, the human psyche must necessarily be described as essentially reactive and stupid, like a ship without a helmsman, at the mercy of every wind and current. Buddhism does regard humans as able to transcend these limitations, by following the ways and means taught by the Buddha in the Dharma; but it does not (in my opinion) fully clarify the psychological processes involved in self-improvement, no doubt due to the impossibility of verbally describing them with precision and generality.

Brazier does go on to describe how Buddhist psychology conceives transcending of the skandhas. She does so in terms of the ‘five omnipresent factors’ being transformed into ‘five rare factors’ “through spiritual practice.” But of course, that account does not clearly say who is doing the spiritual practice, and what faculties are involved. It does not acknowledge that the individual person involved (the self) has to realize (through intelligence and reason) the need for and way to such transformation, and then proceed to bring it about (through complex volitional thoughts and actions). The self and its higher faculties are not given due recognition (because, as already explained, such recognition would go against the Buddhist dogma of no-self). This is not a fault found only in Brazier’s account, but in all orthodox Buddhist accounts.

Understandably, Buddhism, particularly its Zen branch, rejects excessive intellectualism. Admittedly, intelligence, reason and freewill are all very well in principle, as tools for human betterment; but used in excess – or simply misused or abused – they can also and often do exacerbate human delusion and suffering. The intellect can be compulsively used to weave complex webs that distance its victim from reality rather than bring him or her closer to it. We can by such excess become more and more artificial and divorced from our true nature. Of that danger there is no doubt; it is observable. But intellectualism is surely not the whole story concerning our said higher faculties. Surely, they play a big role in improving our understanding and behavior, both in everyday life and in longer-term more intentionally spiritual pursuits.

Moreover, we have to ask whether the five skandhas doctrine, even taken at face value, is truly consistent. We are told that rupa consists in viewing things in relation to self rather than objectively, that vedana consists in immediate likes or dislikes, that samjna consists in making up associations, that samskara consists in conditioning, and that vijnana consists in selfish mentality – and it is all made to seem simple and mechanical. But is it? The Buddhist account itself tells us that these events are interrelated, i.e. stages in a process. Therefore, beneath each of them there must be complex mechanisms at play. Rupa must involve a certain sense of self and of its identity, to be able to select information of interest. Vedana, however instantaneous it may seem, cannot be immediate since it must be filtered through the subconscious scale of values of the person concerned. Samjna presupposes that there are older mental contents to which it associates new mental contents. Samskara refers to habits, which imply programming by repetition. And vijnana in turn implies storage of information and of valuations.

Furthermore, even if we grant that the five skandhas reflect common tendencies within the human psyche, it is introspectively evident that normally the self can in fact, at every one of these stages, intervene through free will based on rational considerations and conscious valuations. That is to say, faced with the ego-centricity of rupa, we can still choose to view things more objectively; faced with thoughtless valuations of vedana, we can still choose to evaluate things in a more balanced manner; faced with wild associations of samjna, we can still choose to put things in context more accurately; faced with our bad samskara habits, we can still choose to resist temptations or overpower resistances; faced with native vijnana selfishness, we can still choose to act with larger perspectives in mind. The human psyche is not a mechanical doll, driven by forces beyond control – there is a responsible soul at its center, able (whether immediately or gradually) to impose its will on the rest of the psyche. Buddhists cannot consistently deny all this, since they do believe in and advocate self-improvement, as the Noble Eightfold Path makes clear.

This brings us to the crux of the matter, the determinism tacitly involved in the five skandhas doctrine. The skandhas are imagined by Buddhists as dharmas, i.e. as “a series of consecutive impersonal momentary events,” as Vasubandhu put it[7]. No one is making them happen, they just happen each one caused by the ones preceding it and causing the ones succeeding it. They do not happen to someone, either, even if they seem to. They are “linked to suffering,” but no one suffers them. Clearly, there is logically no room, in this conception of psychological processes, for a person actually cognizing, understanding, evaluating, reasoning, deciding, choosing and engaging in action. Not only is the person removed, but the acts of cognition, valuation and cognition are also removed. They are reduced to mere momentary electrical disturbances in the mental cloud[8], as it were. They are no longer special relations between a subject or author and other things in the mind or body. This doctrine is, really, crass reification of things that are definitely not entities.

The five skandhas is clearly a mechanistic thesis, even if it is mitigated in a subterranean manner by the Buddhist faith in the possibility of enlightenment and liberation. In this view, logically, such spiritual attainment is itself merely the product of a chain of impersonal mental events, with no one initiating them and no one profiting from them[9]. This state of affairs is claimed to be known by means ‘deep meditation’, although it is not made clear who is doing the meditating, nor by means of what faculties or for what useful purpose. Clearly, objectively, however deep such meditation it could not possibly guarantee the verity of the alleged insights, but must needs submit them to logical evaluation in accord with the laws of thought. Scientific thought cannot accept any deep insights, or any revelations based on them, at face value; it demands rational assessment of all claims.

In truth, granting that there is some truth to the psychological processes described by the skandhas doctrine, they must be viewed more restrictively as processes of ego-building, rather than so radically as processes of self-invention. They refer, not to ways that ‘we’ (a never explained yet still repeatedly used grammatical subject) imagine the self or soul to exist, but to ways that we (the truly existing self or soul, our real selves) constructs and maintains a particular self-image that we think flattering or securing. What is evident in honest, non-dogmatic meditation is that, while such processes can surely influence our mental and physical behavior, i.e. make things easier or more difficult for us, they do not normally determine it. An influence, however strong, can always (with the appropriate attitude and effort) be overcome. At almost every moment of our existence, we remain free to choose to resist these mental forces or to give in to them. If we but make the effort to be aware, to judge and to intervene as well as we can, we remain or become effective masters of our fate.

It is only because we indeed exist as individuals, and have these powers of cognition, valuation and volition, that we can observe, identify, understand and overcome the impersonal forces described by the five skandhas doctrine. Therefore, in fact, the said doctrine, far from constituting an exhaustive listing of the basic building blocks of the human psyche, at best depicts just some surface aspects of much more complicated events and structures. Not only is the list incomplete in that it lacks overt reference to the human self and its higher faculties, but additionally its presentation of the five lower faculties (even assuming that these five faculties indeed exist) is rather superficial. For all the above reasons, and yet others, I view the five skandhas account of human psychology as deficient.

As regards enlightenment, liberation and wisdom, these are impossible without a soul and its faculties of cognition, volition and valuation. Enlightenment means perfect cognition by the soul, i.e. a consciousness as high, wide and deep and accurate as can be for the person concerned. Liberation means perfect volition by the soul, i.e. a will as free of obstructions and as powerful as can be for the person concerned. Wisdom means perfect valuation by the soul, meaning full understanding of good and bad coupled with behavior that is accordingly fully virtuous and non-vicious. Enlightenment, liberation and wisdom are concepts only applicable to sentient beings (notably to humans and other animals, and perhaps in some sense to plants); they are irrelevant to non-spiritual entities (i.e. material and/or mental entities devoid of soul, such as skandhas, computers or fantasy creatures).


[1]              According to the Wikipedia article on this topic, the American Buddhist monk Thanissaro, in Handful of Leaves, Vol. 2, 2nd ed. 2006, p. 309, alleges that the Buddha “never defined a ‘person’ in terms of the aggregates” and that this doctrine is not pan-Buddhist. To my mind, if he said that (I have not seen it with my own eyes), he may well be right.

[2]              I have often in my past writings pointed out the vagueness of the terms mind and consciousness in the discourse of Buddhist philosophers, and explained there how it allows them to get away with much fallacious reasoning.

[3]              Note that in my listing, samjna is placed after samskara, which is not the usual order of listing. I could also have placed samjna after vijnana, since the latter category adds objects of cognition to be considered by the former. However, vijnana also has samjna as one of its objects, since the latter involves consciousness and a conscious subject; so the chosen order of presentation seems most logical.

[4]              London: Robinson, 2003.

[5]              One that could be, and no doubt is, used in meditation.

[6]              It is interesting to note in passing how modern physicists, biologist, psychologists and philosophers tend to similarly studiously ignore the human soul and its functions of cognition, volition and valuation, in their respective accounts of the world, life and humanity. But whereas Buddhism’s motive is to protect its dogma of no-self, the motive of modern ‘scientists’ is to protect their dogma of universal materialism and determinism. The intellectual sin involved in both cases is to deliberately make things look simpler than they are so as to make them fit more easily into one’s pet theory.

[7]              Quoted or paraphrased (not clear which) in Buddhist Scriptures (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1959), edited by Edward Conze. Vasubandhu was a Buddhist monk and major philosopher, fl. 4th to 5th cent. CE in Ghandara (a kingdom located astride modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan). His philosophical posture is today normative, at least among the Mahayana, but it was opposed by a Hinayana school called the Personalists, which lasted for many centuries as of 300 BCE and involved a good many monks (e.g. an estimated 30% of India’s 200,000 monks in the 7th cent.). See pp. 190-197.

[8]              Modern ‘scientists’ (I put the word in inverted commas deliberately, to signify criticism) would say much the same, but would place the electrical disturbances on the more physical plane of the brain and nervous system. The idea that the mind is a sort of very sophisticated computer is untenable, for exactly the same reasons that the idea of skandhas is untenable.

[9]              One Victoria Lavorerio, in a paper called “The self in Buddhism,” has written: “If following Descartes we say that where there is a thought there is a thinker, the Buddhist would respond ‘where there is a thought, there is a thought’.” While rather witty, this statement is of course inane, since its author does not grasp the logical absurdities of the Buddhist no-soul thesis (and that, even though she quotes a couple of arguments of mine regarding them), but merely seeks to position herself fashionably. See her essay here: http://www.academia.edu/1489808/The_self_in_Buddhism.

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