What is a person, a personality, a being? The Buddha

What is a person?  What is the personality? (called Sakkaya – composed of sat-kaya) i.e., What is the being?  What is our human selves?

It is composed of these 5 groups of grasping (the 5 skandhas) that cover everything that a personality is:

  1. The body
  2. Sensations of the body
  3. Perceptions of the body
  4. Activities of the mind
  5. Cognition

These 5 are not simply groups – they are groups of grasping (upadanakhandha) – the sum of which, make up the person/the personality.

Now why did the Buddha call them groups of grasping?

Because despite the fact that these 5 component groups exhaust out personality:

Our essence is not exhausted by our personality – we only grasp it, we only cling to it – so tightly that we imagine ourselves to consist in it – “as if a man with hands besmeared with resin caught hold of a twig”

– George Grimm, p 67, The Doctrine of the Buddha

So let’s go through them:

1.  The Body endowed with the 6 organs of sense (Rupa – the Form skandha)

The Buddha described this like the enclosed space of a house, brought together by the timbers and bricks – like our bones, sinews and flesh – composed of solids, liquids, gases and heat.  So the body is just a transformation of matter from external nature into a house-like structure.

It’s important to note that this body with its 6 sense organs (5 senses + the brain) – forms the basis to all the other 4 groups (the other 4 components to our person).

Our sense organs enables a type of awareness peculiar to each organ by gathering different information (sense objects) from the external world:

  • The eyes gather forms/images/sights
  • The ears gather sounds
  • The nose gathers odours
  • The tongue gathers tastes
  • The body gathers tangibles/sensations
  • The brain – gathers the objects of the other 5 senses.

Different domains and different spheres of action, O brother, suit the 5 different senses – and 1 sense does not share in the domain and sphere of action of another.  They are sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.

Do not these senses, brother, have a central point (patisarana), and does not something share in their domain and sphere of action?”

These 5 senses have thinking as a central point (mana) and thinking shares in their domain and sphere of action.

p70 Sutta quote from George Grimm, The Doctrine of the Buddha

Grimm also notes that the brain is not only the central base for perceiving the objects of the 5 senses, but it can also the organ that can perceive boundless space.

So how it works is sense organ + sense object = sensory consciousness arising:

  1. The sense organ needs to be healthy
  2. The corresponding sense object must come within their field of reach
  3. The corresponding sense consciousness arises as result of the resultant contact

For example, if:

  • Air vibrations comes within the range of healthy ear drums – you hear sound (sound consciousness).
  • If light comes within the visual field of healthy eyes – it stimulates the photoreceptors and you see (sight consciousness).
  • And so on for all the other senses.

So the objects of sense have to come within range – and the interlocking of the object with the organ must take place for the corresponding sense consciousness to arise.

This is the basic definition of consciousness (vinnana) is used in most of the Pali Suttas – and many people make the mistake of inferring from this is the be all and end all of consciousness – it is not.  It is only sensory consciousness.

The Buddha ALSO teaches of consciousness beyond sensory consciousness in both the Pali and Sanskrit Sutras.  This is why the context is so important when you are reading the Buddha’s Sutras – otherwise, you’ll get the meaning wrong – and this wrong understanding can compound down the line.

The Buddha also likens sense consciousness to lighting fires.  Like if a fire burns because of grass – it’s a grass fire.  If it burns because of wood, it’s a wood fire.  If a fire burns because of oil, it’s an oil fire.  Here, the different types of fires is like the different types of sensory consciousness arising.

So these types of consciousnesses (sensory consciousnesses) are conditioned – that means that:

  • The flames of sensory consciousness only arise as a result of conditioning causes – i.e., when a sense organ interlocks with a sense object falling within its range of perception (like rubbing a match against a surface).
  • These fires of consciousness only persist as long as these causes and conditions persist.
  • The fires of sensory consciousness disappear into nothing like the extinguishing of a fire when you withdraw the wood.

So sensory consciousness is a dependent, conditioned type of consciousness – as opposed to the unconditioned, independent consciousness of Nirvana.  This is a very important distinction to understand here.

So if we close our eyes and no light hits the photoreceptors in the retinas of our eyes – then the fire of sight consciousness does not burn and light up.  If we are in a quiet room with no sound to impinge on our ears – sound consciousness does not flare up [This, for the time being is the foundational understanding, but the Shurangama Sutra moves beyond this understanding].  But notice, this is exactly what we do in meditation – we close our eyes, we sit in a quiet place, our body is not moving – so touch consciousness is not firing up – in short, we are making all our 6 consciousnesses quiescent.

Why?  Why do we meditate like this?

Because normally, in our ordinary waking state – our 5 consciousnesses receive sensory information from the external world and then this gets processed, interwoven and integrated in the brain (the 6th sense consciousness) – to form our everyday experience – a 3D experience of our body moving in space and time amongst world of the senses.

What Buddhist meditation does is it allows our senses to be quiescent – to quieten them down – so that the fires of sensory consciousness are not being lit or activated (because the match [sense organ] is not rubbing against the surface [sense object]).  So our attention no longer goes outside the body to experience the world of the senses.  And so, it is helping us let go of the transience of the sensory, skandhic world to see if we can move beyond that – to see if there is something better, more perfect than the imperfect, ephemeral happiness afforded to us through our sensory experience.  Meditation allows the sensory world to temporarily disappear from our experience – so the world of the 5 skandhas disappears in deep meditation – and yet, even though the world through our senses has temporarily disappeared from our perception, we have not yet disappeared!  We are still sitting there meditating.  Meditation allows you to let go of all that is unessential – so that the essential can be perceived.

So this is the form skandha (the body) – the physical skandha – the 1st of the 5 skandhas that compose our person, our personality – the body endowed with its 6 sensory organs.  We’ve still got to get through the other 4 mental skandhas.

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