Five Skandhas, Five Ranks

The way I use the term Apex really includes the whole being, which in Buddhism we call the Five Skandhas.  The Five Skandhas are also known as the Five Aggregates or Heaps that make up what we identify as our self, this very body/mind, what you and I call “me” or “I.” This self consists of these five: 1) body, form, 2) emotions, feelings, 3) perception, 4) karma, deeply rooted patterns or mental constructs, and 5) consciousness.  Because everything is impermanent all five are also impermanent and unsubstantial.

Who we truly are, what we refer to as our true self, is the Buddha, the Awakened One.  We are always balancing and harmonizing these Five Skandhas.  They are not fixed; they are in continuous flow, movement.  This harmonizing is not something we do once and then we’re done and can just rest on our laurels.  We are constantly integrating and balancing these five unconsciously, it’s a process.  So what we’re aiming for is to be awake in our consciousness, realizing all is impermanent, nothing is solid or substantial.  And this that we call “I” or “myself” is made up of these five aggregates, but none of them are permanent.  Sometimes we live in denial, as if one or more of them — the body or consciousness — were permanent.  Or we live as if we’re immortal.  But the body or consciousness, like anything that is born, dies.  Anything that is created, including consciousness itself, ceases to exist.  All five are impermanent and in constant flux, not solid, fixed or substantial.

Now some of us like to cling to the idea that consciousness is permanent.  We can see that feelings are impermanent.  We can see, at times, that form is impermanent.  We can see that mental constructs like deeply rooted patterns are also impermanent.  We can see that all these are impermanent, however it is more difficult to see consciousness itself is impermanent.  There is nothing that is solid and substantial, nothing permanent.  In fact the only thing that we can say is permanent is the truth of impermanence.  There is the process of being conscious or witnessing, but there is no permanent, substantial witness.  There is no knower, only continuous knowing.  Neither is there anything we can really know that is permanent, because once we become one with something known, the one who knows is gone.  The knower is gone and there is just the oneness: oneness with body, oneness with feelings, oneness with perception, oneness with consciousness, oneness with our karma, oneness with all of this.  So who are we?  We are these Five Aggregates altogether as one.

One thing to realize at the very beginning of our practice is the insubstantiality of what we call our self or these Five Aggregates.  However, as we progress in our practice — or in our life, because practice and life are synonymous — we see that since everything is born of Buddha, then even what is impermanent is still important and significant, is Buddha.  So our feelings are Buddha.  Our emotions are also Buddha.  This body is Buddha.  Our consciousness is Buddha.  All are Buddha.  Even though they are impermanent and unsubstantial, still all are Buddha.

So in the beginning, we look upon all things in a Hinayana way, from a distance or a detached perspective, and we see, “Oh this is impermanent, this is unsubstantial.”  And we let it all go.  But then we have to come back and embrace it all, include it all, and see that it is all who I am.  Even though I myself don’t exist as something solid and substantial, I do exist as something impermanent and unsubstantial.  And that’s all I’ve got.  So negating it all flips to completely affirming or confirming this very life as it is, that it is all … “just this!”

Now along the way what seems to happen is that we have what can be called state experiences, what in Zen we call kensho experiences.  We may experience various things as empty, our self, our emotions, our sensations, etc.  We may have the experience that our anger or fear is not fixed and solid.  We may even feel we have transcended these various basic feelings and emotions, and arrived at some deep new experience.  Eventually, however, we have to see that these state experiences don’t necessarily bring us to a new stage, or a true shift.  We still have to move through various stages in our process of development or growth.  We have to grow up, as Maezumi Roshi was fond of saying.

A great master by the name of Tozan, who lived way back in the 9th Century AD in China, came up with a scheme, or you can say a map, of five stages in our development.  Each of these stages has to be gone through, none can be skipped.  Every stage is essential and is part of our evolution or growth.  Not only in Zen or Buddhism; we go through these stages of development in everything and all of life.

In the first stage our everyday consciousness is such that we see reality, we see the world, as separate.  We see our self as separate from the environment, from each other and from all other things.  Then we get a glimpse of the oneness, the interconnectedness, the interdependency of all things.  We see that what you or I do affects everybody else and what everybody else does affects each of us.  We’re affecting our environment and our environment is affecting us.  Everything is connected and interdependent and there’s no such thing as independence.  To be independent is a kind of illusion because we are constantly dependent on the ground, on gravity, on food, on water, on air, on all these things and on each other.  So the illusion of independence is just that, it’s an illusion.  We see through the illusion that anything is permanent, solid and substantial, and we see that we’re all connected.  And then, because we only get glimpses of this reality, there’s a process we go through where we have to fully surrender to it.

Those glimpses are called kenshos, but to have a great enlightenment, or daikenshodai means great — and to really get to a stage level where we live from this place of seeing our interconnectedness, our oneness with all and the unsubstantiality of everything — in other words we see, we realize the absolute — to be at a stage level, we have to go through a process of surrendering, surrendering, surrendering, letting go, letting go, letting go to that reality.

Finally at some point we go through a lot of doubt, which in the Zen vernacular is called Great Doubt.  Doubt in everything we know, everything we have kind of put together in our mind as to what reality is.  We doubt all our beliefs, all our notions, all our ideas, all our concepts, all our opinions.  We have to let them all go, including the ones that are the most difficult to release: the ones that we know to be true.  Whatever our reality is, whatever our belief, whatever opinion or concept or experience that we know to be true — that’s the hardest to let go of.  But we have to surrender it all.  And that’s why Great Doubt comes up.

It feels like a kind of dissatisfaction — more than dissatisfaction, like complete discouragement, complete disillusionment with where we’re at, with our practice, with our life.  It can reach the point where it becomes Great Doubt in everything.  Great Doubt in the teaching.  Great Doubt in the teacher.  Great Doubt in our experience.  Great Doubt in our understanding.  We’re questioning everything.  There is nothing left we don’t question, which is a great but a very painful thing, because at this stage we lose our identity completely.  We see that anything we call “me” or “mine” is not “me,” is not “mine.”

Doubt comes up; to the best of my knowledge it can’t be forced.  Over the years I’ve had students say they want to be in Great Doubt.  But you can’t make it happen.  However, I’ll tell you what seems to bring it on.  It’s when you get to a place where you really, really know that you are the Awakened One — ‘I am the Buddha, and I don’t mean just a Buddha, I am the Buddha — and not just Shakyamuni Buddha but all Buddhas’ — when you really get to that place, and after a period of time your life still sucks.  Which it will, because in this second stage it still sucks.  There is still the relative existence that you’re coming from even though you had a glimpse of the Absolute.  Everything you say, everything that comes out of your mouth starts feeling like shit.  Like you’ve got diarrhea and it just goes on and on and on.  And you have the feeling — at least my feeling was — that when I would speak or give a teaching, I would change the teaching to shit!  I was a reverse alchemist.  I would take precious jewels and gold, these beautiful koans and these beautiful words of wisdom from the Buddha and the ancestors, and I would just turn them to shit.

I was teaching — this was the period from ’73 to ’86 —from a place of having had many kenshos but not daikensho.  So I was coming from a memory of an experience.  I remembered what it was like to experience oneness and interconnectedness and all that.  I remembered what it was like to experience being Buddha.  But I wasn’t sourcing; it was still coming through the self.  The wish was to be self-less, but the truth was it was all getting filtered through the self.  So the mind was still involved.  Whereas what we call daikensho is cutting the root of dualistic thinking, or the root of the mind that is creating that separation, so we’re coming directly from the source, flowing like a hose from a pipe connected directly to the source.  But until that point we feel very dissatisfied and uncomfortable with our state of being, which brings up more and more doubt:  Was this really kensho?  Did I really experience it?  Have I gone deep enough?  All this doubt comes up to the point where we can’t sleep.  We can’t relax.  We’re just in the doubt.  We’re constantly questioning.  What is it?  What is it?  What could it be?  What have I not seen yet?  What have I not realized yet?  And then the trick is to really go into that.  When we truly go into this Great Doubt, it flips into the third stage, great awakening

This third stage is called the Absolute or Daikensho or the Great Death or bodymind dropped off, it has many names.  It’s a stage of development we get stuck in, because it’s so profound.  There is no suffering, there is no one to suffer.  Of course we can have some physical pain, but there is no suffering on top of the pain.  There is no one there to suffer.  Everything flows.  It’s called being one with the Tao, being in the Way, one with the Way, one with flow.  It’s the most difficult stage to let go of.  Our glimpse in the first stage, the process of surrendering in the second — they’re easier to let go of.  But to let go of great enlightenment, that is very difficult, because we exist in a kind of, you can almost say, blissful state.  It’s not quite bliss; I call it grace.  We live in a state of grace.

So at the next level, the fourth, which Tozan called the absolute attained, we have to come back to the relative, to the relative reality.  It’s more like a fall or descent, and what we lose is that state of grace.  We start to integrate all the relative, impermanent things we had realized to be empty and let go of, and we come back hard to reality.  It’s like we crash into reality and come back to earth.  And it’s all back with a vengeance, the fear, the anger, the suffering , all these things that may have been gone a long time — for me they were gone from ’86 to ’94, eight years.  This is the beginning of the process of reintegrating the relative and the absolute, the personal and the impersonal, the relational and the non-relational, all of that.

In the fourth stage, when all the relative views and feelings that we were free of in the third stage come back, they don’t have the stickiness they once had, because we’ve already seen them as impermanent.  We don’t relate to them or personalize them the same way, but we do experience them intensely.  At least I did, maybe because I had been free from fear and anger for so long, really from ’86 to ’94.  I mean, I actually scared myself with how much anger was coming up within me.  I felt like I could have killed at that point.  I think there might be a more graceful way to deal with it, but for me it was like a huge redwood falling, and I was that redwood and I just crashed down.  But it is different because you know there is no self.  You know it’s empty.

When you are in the absolute, third stage, there is no relative.  It’s just an absolute.  So the relative does not exist, it gets completely negated or not seen.  It’s what we say in The Identity of Relative and Absolute: when one side is light the other side is dark.  When you are in the absolute, you do not see that there is anything relative.  There is no relative.  It’s all illusion.  When you come back to the relative, it’s all relative.  It’s all personal.  I remember having this debate with Maezumi Roshi at Bob Lee’s house in San Francisco in March of ’95 when he said, “Your talk was too personal.”  I said, “It’s all personal!  There is no absolute!”

From the perspective of the fourth stage there is no absolute.  The absolute doesn’t exist, because that’s what the absolute is: it’s non-existence, non-existence of the relative reality.  So yes, when it comes back we can’t hold on to it and we do see that there is nothing substantial about it.  But the anger, the fear, is very much in our face.  They are right there and we’re experiencing them without any hindrance.  At this point there is no absolute, there is just this relative existence.  That’s the qualitative difference.  There is no separation, no distance from the experience of it.  It’s just the raw nature of it.  It’s absolutely raw, and that’s how we feel, extremely raw and vulnerable.  With no capacity to protect, for what is there to protect at this point?  We’ve lost our ability to put up barriers and walls, because in the absolute there are no barriers and there are no walls and there are no boundaries.  So when we come back into anger, we’re just angry! And when we come back into fear, we’re just in fear!  Whatever we come back to, whatever’s coming up, it’s just that.  And it’s changing continuously.

One of the things I experienced at this stage was being, for a while, completely dysfunctional.  I mean if there hadn’t been the form of the tradition and the ritual — because I was in a series of retreats all over Europe when it happened — I would really have been a mess.  But the tradition gave me a kind of container, a form I could just follow.  However, after about a month, as soon as I came back to Salt Lake, I felt as if somehow I couldn’t  get my feet on the ground, my feet couldn’t even touch the Earth.  At the same time I was completely vulnerable and fragile and raw.  I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody.  That’s what I don’t know.  But after having been so much into the absolute I came back that much into the relative, almost too much.

Maybe because we have fallen out of the absolute, all feelings and emotions are raw but not really directed at anything in particular, or simply directed at whatever is happening.  I guess I could say that to some extent my feelings were directed at having denied or deceived myself for so long, at what today might be called my “spiritual bypassing.”

Have you ever tried to speak to somebody who is stuck in the absolute?   It’s almost impossible, because when we are stuck in the absolute, we are totally confident it is Reality.  Because it is!  We call the absolute “Reality.”  It’s the true reality.  So when we are stuck there, we can’t see that we are.  In ’87 my teacher told me, “Sensei, you’re on an ego trip!”  I was shocked.  ‘There’s no ego in the absolute!  There’s no self!  How can I be on an ego trip?’  I’ve talked to others stuck in the absolute and they say, “I’m not on an ego trip, there is no ego!”  That’s the big ego trip: to think there is no ego.  You can’t get on a much bigger ego trip than that.

So some of my anger may have been at that delusion.  Dogen Zenji said, “Delusion is enlightenment,” meaning that when we are deluded in our everyday consciousness, enlightenment is already present.  That’s what we start with.  But when we awaken to our enlightened nature, that’s delusion.  The moment we get enlightened, we’re deluded!   Because we deny the relative, and along with that we deny karma, cause and effect.  And that’s probably part of what the anger is about, because we denied it and now see the harm that we have created by being in denial.  We see the ego trip we are on.  I didn’t see the ego trip I was on until ’94.  It took me eight years, to see it.  ‘Oh my god!  He was right!  I’ve been on one big ego trip!’

I was recently talking to someone else who has gone through a similar fall from grace, and he said the same thing, “Genpo, you’ll never guess what I was on — it was a big ego trip!”   Everybody sees it but ourself.  But people are attracted to it because when we are in that third stage we are so powerful and confident.  I mean we are so certain — because that’s what it is, we are certain of our uncertainty, we know absolutely that we don’t know.  We know with absolute certainty that nothing is knowable.  We are absolutely certain that we hold the “Truth.”  Of course in a way it is Truth, but we can get stuck here just as we can in any knowing, any certainty.

The fifth stage, which is better viewed as a continuing process, is what we call unity attained.  It’s when we come from the apex, where we unify the relational and the non-relational, the absolute and the relative.  We begin this process of integration to some extent at the fourth stage, when we are really back in the relative.  But in the fifth, we’re in the process of truly integrating.  It is a further and more mature deepening of this unity attained.

At the fifth stage there is another descent, a complete loss of everything.  It is as if in the fourth stage we had landed on a great plateau so vast and wide that we thought we were at sea level.  We thought we had arrived at the fifth stage, only to discover that we still had farther to fall.  Here there is a complete loss of identity, we have now lost all enlightenment as well as the person.  We have returned to the origin, to our original home.  We have come full circle, we are completely human and ordinary, yet not.  We identify with the lowest of the low and the greatest of the great.  We are vulnerable as well as powerful.  There is no longer any false pretense or façade.  We’re at home with the homeless as well as wealthy, with the down-and-out as well as the CEOs of great companies.

At this stage we realize that we are truly the architects of our own karma, it is our unconscious intelligence and wisdom at work.  Even if we are not conscious of this it is still so.  Karma is playing itself out all the time.  However karma is not about good and bad.  There is nothing good or bad about it, it simply is what it is.  We say ‘I have good karma,’ ‘I have bad karma,’ but good and bad are just concepts we add on top of it.  Karma is just basically cause and effect.  And it’s rather impersonal.  It can feel very personal, but there is nothing personal about it.  That is the reason that there is no one to blame, no God in heaven or others that are doing this to us.  We are totally responsible for cause and effect.  In fact we realized way back at stage one that there are no others, nothing outside.  Now we live from the place where there truly are no others to blame.

It is as if we had gone on this great journey many decades ago, leaving home only to find that we had been on one very long and exciting trip.  We have truly returned home with gift-bestowing hands and a bottle of wine under our arm.  A little ragged and aged, but none the worse for wear, mingling with the extraordinary as well as the ordinary, without judgement of self or others, honest and transparent.  We have truly come home, at peace and happy with self and others.  Growing old is an honor to be respected and appreciated.  We sit in meditation relaxed and natural with no gaining idea, without goals or aspirations yet awake and present, including yet beyond both the spiritual and mundane, deeply settled in a bliss-like samadhi.  Our sitting is somewhere between awake and asleep, conscious and unconscious, alive or dead.  There is a sense of peace and serenity, a freedom from self, yet completely settled in self, at home in our own skin.

5 thoughts on “Five Skandhas, Five Ranks”

  1. Dear Roshi, thank you.
    Of course I have heard you go through Tozan’s five ranks several times, but at the same time, and that’s what is interesting, there is allways something new, a nugget here and a nugget there. So again, thank you!

  2. Thank you for these transforming words and wisdom.
    Even somewhere far from it, last chapter hit me hard.

    A lot of
    Love, bliss and truth

  3. To me, dear Roshi, that too will be ripped apart, as every state, stage and what not is subject to what Shivaism calls Spanda. Being seems to keep consolidating and tearing itself apart. No stopping. No exiting.
    Loving you and cherishing your words while wanting to cut them to pieces.
    Are we not just helplessly hopping from one attachment we call non-attachment to the next. Apex by apex by..

  4. I like where this finally lands: a bunch of old farts sitting around in zazen, half asleep and half awake. The only thing I would add is that they occasionally mumble, “Stages, schmages.”


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