One of the core teachings of Buddhism, already briefly mentioned in Buddha’s first sermon in the Deer Park of Sarnath , is called Upadana Skandas. Literally, Upadana means “fuel”. It is usually translated as “clinging”. Besides “thirst” (Tanha in Pali, Trishna in Sanskrit), which is the Buddhist term for “desire”, clinging is one of the root causes of universal suffering.
However, the focus of the Buddha’s teaching called Five Upadana Skandhas is a new one, not just repeating the Four Noble Truths in an analogous way. The main theme of this teaching is that what is meant by the Sanskrit term “Skanda”, or “Khandha” in Pali. Actually, Skandas are “groups” or “aggregates”. But the groups meant by this term are five aspects constituting a human being. It’s the Buddhist equivalent to teachings of the kind: a person consists of body and soul, or of body, emotions and reason etc.
1. The body is one of the five Upadana Skandhas, it is called “rupa”.
But the mental aspects of a human being are divided in four diffferent categories, and a soul is definitely not one of them, see below.
In fact, the Five Skandhas form a kind of hierarchy, the body being the most basic of them, a prerequisite for all the others. And the four mental Skandhas are dependent on those of lower levels correspondingly. But this hierarchy is not the key feature of the teaching of the Upadana Skandhas. Quite the contrary, more emphasis is put on the five components as being of of equal rank in constituting a human being. Besides the body, the other Skandhas are
2. Sensation (Vedana): sensing something as pleasant or unpleasant.
3. Perception(Samjna, Pali Sanna: recognizing an object
4. Volition (Samskara, Pali Sankhara): affects triggered by an object.
5. Consciousness (Vijnana, Pali Vinnana), being aware of the objects and its effects
It’s more important to understand why these components of a human being are tought as by the Buddha than to analyze what exactly is meant by each of them. The reason is: The Buddha emphasizes, that this is all what can be found constituting the human being and all this that can be found has one feature in common: it’s undergoing change.
Indeed, the teaching of the Pancha Upadana Skandhas (Five Clinging Aggregates) is meant to explain why everything constituting a human being is not something everlasting. The body is changing, and so are all mental components, too. What is new and specific here, is this: Previous Hindu thought, developed in a literature called “Upanishads”, deals also with the transience of the body and desires and so on, but is looking for a part of a human being, considered to be the core part, which is not changing and therefore nor suffering. And this core constituent of a human being is called Atman in the Upanishads. Sometimes this is translated as “soul”. Nonetheless, “Atman” in those ancient Indian teachings is nothing personal or individual. Quite the contrary, the Atman of each and every person is identical and also identical with the core of the universe, Brahman. But the Buddhist teaching of the Five Upadhadana Skandhas now stresses nothing less than this: There is no such Atman! Whatever can be found as a component of a human being, is in a state of transition. This crucial teaching of Buddhism is therefore called “Anatman” in Sankskrit or “Anatta” in Pali, meaning exactly this: No-Atman. English translations are: No-Person, Non-Self, Without-Soul.
But the best translation - in order to understand this teaching - should be: Non-Identity. The very centre of the Buddhist teaching is: there is nothing that remains identic in the course of time. Everything what could be found and considered to be an exemption from the rule - the rule is transition - will turn out to be of a changeable and suffering nature. So if the Five Skandhas are everything what constitutes a human being, nothing of it is of the kind of an Atman. But the good news is: For salvation - ending the suffering - it’s not necessary at all to find such an Atman, it’s just enough not to cling on anything, you do not need to find an Atman and indeed you must not look for it to end this clinging. Looking for an Atman would be looking for something to cling on. And whatever that might be, it would turn out not to be of that aspired eternal nature, but transient.
Let’s give an example, which by the way is part of the Buddhist teachings: Many people claim, their religion is part of their identity, and they think, that’s fine, because this part will never vanish. The Buddhist teaching is: This is an illusion, what they think is part of their identity is in fact their identification with something they regard as unchangeable - only by mistake. What indeed occurs, are such clinging identifications, but not actual idendities. So if the religious teaching has to undergo change, those religious people are suffering, because they identify themselves so much with something transient that this necessity to change their believes is interpreted - wrongly - as hurting themselves. Contrasting to this, the Buddhist understanding is: Do not identify yourself with anything, not even with the very best belief or knowledge. Even the Buddhist teaching itself is not something to cling on: It must be left behind by someone on the way to true salvation. As already mentioned, this Not-clinging-on-Buddhist-teachings is part of the Buddhist teachings themselves. And this is one of the consequences of the teaching called Non-Identity: Do not identify yourself with anything, not with your body, not with your desires, not even with the liberating teachings of the Buddha!
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