We are watching a film, and therefore we suspect the presence of a projector. In a nutshell, this is the region that our mind provides us with according to Buddhism. The film is our experience. The projector, it is our ‘self’
Traditionally, Buddhism does not think as we do in things, but in relationships. After all, what we think we perceive in our experience is something that emerges from a field of relationships.
Reality is a constructed reality. You can train your mind to see not the construction but the relationships. If you succeed in doing this sufficiently, then you will henceforth pierce the delusion produced by an untrained mind.
A trained mind ‘sees’ the relationships in reality. The relationships are in a state of constant change. The experience of the change, that is the film.
However, the projector is not there. With the Buddhist experience of a reality full of relationships, the notion of a permanent self dissolves. The self is just one of the many images in the film. Seeing things as they are, as relationships, is one possible way to experience the famous Buddhist concept of emptiness.
Note that Buddhism does not deny the reality of self-experience. To a certain extent, we need this experience to function in everyday life. But the self is not the compass on which we must sail in everything. It is good when we realize that it is what it is: a chimera. Then we can’t be misled by it and focus on what really matters.
Numerous Buddhist monks have studied how the human experience emerges after the appearance of the historical Buddha. If you try to draw attention to exactly how many different kinds of experiences your film consists of, you’re pretty much imitating what the monks did. Based on the Buddha’s instructions, they gradually developed a detailed division into five ‘modes of experience’: forms (things), perceptions, consciousness, feelings and will.
Everything that occurs to you in your film is an interplay between these five modes of experience. You perceive something, but you don’t need to be aware of it. What is in your consciousness is only part of your experience. You can have a perception of something and a feeling at the same time. The two may or may not necessarily be related. As you examine your experience, you may also encounter the workings of the will. You meet the will when you experience what drives you.
Things have been called ‘dharmas’ since the time of early Buddhism. Dharmas are knots of relationships in our experience. Our task is to find out how the whole of constructed reality consists of constituent parts: the deconstruction of the dharmas, so to speak.
It takes some subtlety of your analytical skills to distinguish between all these and other experiences, but you can learn it. Hereby you are following in the footsteps of the monks who did this in the centuries after the Buddha’s death.
The five modes of experience are called the ‘skandhas’ in Buddhism. It may take you some time to understand exactly what this means. This is because everyone tries to explain in their own words what the skandhas mean. There is a difference in terminology, a difference in application and a difference in clarity of explanation.
After the period of source Buddhism (the appearance of the Buddha and immediately thereafter) came the period of multi-school Buddhism. At that time, Buddhists began to have divergent interpretations of the teachings. It never changed after that.
Although skandhas can therefore also be subject to confusion, I will deal with them here for the sake of simplicity, but in the language I understand. It is important that each of the skandhas viz. each of the different modes of experience is itself a field of relations.
The interaction between these conditions colors the experience of your film, so to speak. It is as if the skandhas in the projection of your film rotate over each other like different lenses. The metaphor of rotating lenses over each other is sufficient to express how your experience consists of different layers.
In discussions with Buddhists, I sometimes notice that the basics of Buddhism easily escape people. We are somehow stuck in a dualistic worldview: here I am, there is reality.
It’s not that simple either, because you have to go from thinking about things to experiencing relational fields. It is often a tour de force each time, requiring people to take themselves to a different fantasy world than the usual one.
Doing this requires a certain amount of plastic language and the mental gymnastics required if you want to learn the difference between a thing, a concept, an image and a feeling. Intuitively we understand the difference, but making this aware is for many an abstract, philosophical exercise. However, it is a condition if you want to engage with Buddhism in a meaningful way.
Buddhism cannot do without developing the ability to analyze what is going on in your experience; it cannot do without learning to perceive what you perceive. The Skandhas are the foundation of Buddhist experiential teaching.
Buddhism has many more and much more sophisticated ways of describing the human experience. For example, we owe to the period of many Buddhist schools (I adopt these terms from Thich Nhat Hanh) an ever-widening classification of all kinds of moods that people can be in. Within relationships, a state of calm, or anger, or energy, or happiness, or fear.
You can make a long list of such moods. In Buddhism they are called “mental formations”. At Thich Nhat Hanh you will find a total of fifty-one. In the word formations you can again hear that there is something that is composed of an interplay of relationships.
Such mental formations can be beneficial or unhealthy, an important addition. Important because beneficial and unhealthy gives an indication of the direction of your actions. State of mind and action are closely linked. From the beginning, Buddhism has been interested in what makes whole (beneficial) and what breaks (unhealthy). Beneficial action leads to a reduction of suffering for yourself and others, unhealthy action to increase.
When the mind is no longer playing tricks on us and you are free to determine the direction of your actions, then you are able to do what makes whole in any given situation. For this reason, the formulation of the Eightfold Path also speaks of ‘right view’, ‘right livelihood’, ‘right concentration’, etc. Exactly what is right is not prescribed in a precept. This is precisely what is beneficial in the pragmatic situation.
Each of the skandhas, each mode of experience, is literally made an area of focus in Buddhism. In the Sutra on Cultivating Mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutra (MN 10), the Buddha gives directions for a method you can follow to further refine the analysis of your experience.
The Dharma, now capitalized and in the singular, is the Buddha’s understanding of building relationships that encompass all possible experience. This revelation can come to anyone who cultivates his attention sufficiently in accordance with the Satipatthana Sutra or whatever other Buddhist traditions take its place.
Change of perspective
Focusing on your experience, adequately analyzing that experience, rethinking things for relationships, and discovering how to transform moods and behaviors into health – this is the core of Buddhism. The Buddha started a movement that aimed and aims to penetrate the illusions that the mind can present to us. Learning to pierce these illusions results in freedom, a freedom on the basis of which you are able to act in a spirit of wholeness for all and sundry.
I note that this freedom is not necessarily absolute. Most people have to bring themselves again and again to the point where this freedom arises, and even then they can only do what is in their power within the given circumstances. The circumstances of our existence often imply a certain limitation that we cannot simply transcend.
It is therefore not said that complete liberation in this life is within the reach of all. The spiritual training of Buddhism teaches you to deal with the change of perspective on things and conditions, of freedom and lack of freedom, of suffering and happiness. It is already a lot in practice.