[The following flows from a discussion that we had recently on ITZI Supprt Zoom]

What follows below is quite condensed yet by no means exhaustive. The methods are as innumerable as the cases and the amount that can be said about right view is similarly vast.

The skandha cycle is an analysis of how consciousness becomes dysfunctional. Dysfunctional consciousness (“disconsciousness” - vijñana) consists of dysfunctional intention controlling attention. Disfunctional intention is itself a function of complexes or “deluded internal formations” (samskara) that have become established and proliferated through a person’s repetitive participation in stereotyped, programmed, trance-like routines of thought, feeling and action (samjña).

Attention guided by disconsciousness fixates upon objects (rupa) that then exercise a power to trigger feelingful reactions (vedana) as the organism recognises them in its dysfunctional way, thus precipitating the person into the samjña trance. Samjña is thus the state of mind in which the ordinary person passes much of quotidian life, never realising how it is laying down and reinforcing delusional patterns deep in the mind that will perpetuate the cycle.

This cycle thus consists of five links

Therapy consists in either
(a) transforming each of the elements into its non-dysfunctional equivalent, the so-called “rare factors” that constitute enlightenment.
(b) breaking or transforming one of more of the five links.
(c) establishing a new link strong enough to drive out the undesirable one.

Breaking or transforming of the first link means that the person changes the way in which the rupa is construed such that something previously experienced as attractive comes to be experienced as loathsome and repulsive or vice versa. Thus, if we take the case of a person wishing to give up smoking, there will be times and circumstances in which the person habitually experiences a desire to smoke. To extinguish this pattern either (a) those times and conditions need to be eliminated so that the trigger does not occur and/or (b) the object itself (smoking) must come to seem so strongly repulsive that even when the times and circumstances occur the vedana reaction remains negative rather than positive.

1. Eliminating triggers may mean never going to the shop where cigarettes are bought, not going to the places where smoking occurs, not mixing with the company in which one habitually shares the smoking habit, and so on. Generally, in an established addictive habit there is a multiplex lead up to the event of indulgence and therapy may involve making an analysis of all the micro-steps along the way to determine what might be changed to disrupt the normal sequence.
2. Transforming the vedana reaction such that the object that was experienced as attractive become repulsive has two aspects, (a) how the object itself is construed and (b) the sense of its consequentiality.
Thus, to take the second first, in the case of smoking, a person may give it up if they genuinely come to understand its real consequences. The term genuinely must be stressed here because mere intellectual knowledge does not do the trick. The person has to actually experience the consequence and digest the lesson. When consequences lie far in the future, as with the health consequences of smoking, this is difficult to achieve. However, there are other more immediate consequences that can have an impact upon the first aspect. People are more likely to give up smoking as a result of realising that it makes them immediately ugly and smelly than because it will kill them in twenty years time. If the act of smoking comes to be construed as a dirty smelly habit rather than as a cool thing to do, then the person may change.
3. Establishing a new link that overwhelms the old one might happen in a number of different ways. Falling in love, religious conversion and radical changes of life circumstance can all bring about changes in how the skanda cycle operates. A person who decides to lose weight may go on a diet but find it impossible to sustain the diet by will-power. However, if the person becomes compulsively attached to jogging, they will probably lose weight. One is more likely to break a bad habit by adopting a new incompatible one than by simply trying to desist. Similarly, if a person does give up a habit, there is a strong likelihood that they will slip into a new habit, hopefully a less pernicious one, to replace it. Thus the person giving up smoking might take to eating sweets.

The references above to how things are construed means that in all of this the other elements in the skandha cycle are also operating. How one sees something (attractive/repulsive) is a function of one’s inner mental constructs including, most saliently, one’s sense of identity. Whether something is a cool thing to do or a despicable sign of belonging to an out-group is related to how one experiences oneself and what social and meaningful context one identifies with. Identity is largely a sense of belonging. To change the group to which one feels one belongs is to change one’s identity and along with such a change go a mass of other connected habits, signs and accoutrements. This is why falling in love, religious conversion and radical changes of life circumstance bring about changes in many aspects of one’s life. All three can constitute a liberation and/or ensconsement in a new mental prison - hopefully a more benign one.

Observing how the client construes and responds to significant objects gives clues to the complexes that have built up and that regulate the person’s way of experiencing. In much of psychotherapy one is dealing with situations where the significant object is not a physical substance, as in the major addictions, but is another human being or, usually, a whole cast of significant others who populate the client’s life. We build a life in relation to significant others and our internal formations are constructed to help us navigate the social currents that we live amongst.

Free association, interpretation, narrative construction, reenactment, art and action methods such as dance therapy or drama therapy all address different aspects of the complex of complexes that are the inner workings of the mind. The skandha theory gives us a map by which to see how these depth aspects mesh with the behavioural.

The aim of Buddhist analysis is to progress from the skandha cycle to the cycle of rare factors:

Smriti is mindfulness in the original Buddhist sense of good heartedness grounded in the experience of liberation. It provides the foundation for samadhi which is the concentrated state of one who is not distracted by compulsive obsessions. Samadhi makes possible prajña which is the wisdom that comes from seeing what is really going on and not being taken in by surface appearances. Prajña makes possible chanda, which is pure intention, or desire devoid of selfishness. Chanda is the basis for adhimoksha which is complete liberation. Adhimoksha is then the basis for smriti.

This benign cycle loosely maps onto the skandha cycle as its corrupted counter-part.

1. Rupa refers to objects that have compelling positive or negative power (things that we “worship” or idolise, or, conversely loathe). Such power is an aspect of personal neediness. Smriti is the big hearted attitude within which all things are accepted because personal neediness has fallen away. Smriti, mindfulness, means to keep holy things in mind. The person whose mind is full of sacred objects is not seduced by mundane ones.
2. Vedana refers to knowingness - the visceral, compulsive impulse toward or away from something. The ordinary mind is ruled by obsessions and addictions. Obsessions and addictions are, fundamentally, failures to learn the lessons of life. The enlightened person learns easily and quickly and so such compulsiveness falls away, permitting undistracted attention.
3. Samjña is the kind of everyday state of mind in which ordinary people pass most of their time, hopping from one entrancement to another, skating along on the surface of life. Prajña, on the other hand, is a deeper perception and appreciation, uninfected by self-interest, in which one senses the real dynamic of situations dispassionately.
4. Samskara refers to the complexes we construct, especially those connected with our fantasy of self-identity. Chanda, on the other hand, is the more naked life energy expressed in such Zen comments as “when hungry eat, when tired sleep”. It is motivation without pretension.
5. Vijñana is “disconsciousness” - the faulty mentality that results from our inner complexes. It is full of of intentions infected with pride, worry, envy, greed and hate, but, more fundamentally, it is the confused state that results from learning interrupted by self-conceit. Adhimoksha, by contrast, is the mind freed from such preoccupations, liberated to encounter the world just as it comes with a sense of the rightness and completeness of things. It is pure faith, beyond attachment to particular schemes or structures.

We can see that the benign cycle is one free from self-conceit and its associated obsessions and compulsions. It is a dynamic state in which the process of learning flows easily because it is not impeded by attachments to accumulated positive or negative rupa objects. Beyond every rupa appearance lies a dharma reality.

In the relationship illustrated by the encounters that we see in the Buddhist records between Buddha and his disciples or between master and disciple in the lineage records of different schools, we can detect a number of common elements.
1. The disciple, generally without conscious awareness of doing so, invites the master into his “game”. The complexes that we harbour require counter-parts; a mother complex requires a partner to play the child. An authority complex requires a partner to play the part of the person who can be rebelled against; and so on. The master, naturally, does not fall into playing the part. This creates a certain awkwardness in the relation.
2. Nonetheless, the master naturally manifests a complete absence of hostility. This generates a second order of cognitive dissonance. The disciple is used to a world in which those who do not play the game can readily be classified as enemies, thus invoking a different, equally dysfunctional game.
3. The above two characteristics rest upon the fact that the master has no personal investment. Here we encounter something that might at first seem paradoxical. The master’s “love” is a manifestation of his dispassion. He is not trying in any way to manipulate the situation to personal advantage.
4. Nonetheless, the master is interested in understanding and learning. His samadhi is such that he is clear and focussed and he is likely to understand (prajña) what is going on in a deeper yet more innocent manner than is usual.

Meeting such a master can be disconcerting. On the one hand, he or she gives signs that one usually takes as indicating special interest, yet one finds that, in fact, in a deeper sense, there is here a complete impartiality. The master is free and is not looking to become unfree. Those who associate with such a person, however, find themselves becoming liberated by the very fact that their unfree habits fall flat and hook no catch.

The description of the master in the previous section gives us a picture of the ideal therapist and of how being with such a person functions naturally to transmit liberation by allowing compulsive attachments to fall away.

Such a person has a kind of cosmic goodwill that embraces whatever befalls and whoever arrives. If the person who arrives is caught in the skandha cycle, the therapist is deeply interested. “Oh, tell me about your life - this is very interesting.” The client is a special case of the universal koans of impermanence. Through each unique instance, something new is discovered. No two clients are exactly the same, so the accompaniment is art as much as science.

However, the paradox is that the therapist is more interested in understanding than in changing, yet such understanding does tend to be a powerful change agent. The very fact that the therapist accepts the client in all his peculiarity is freeing for him.

We can think of it as if the benign cycle is always inherent, as it were, underneath the skandhas. As the skandas fall away, the rare factors appear. However, they fall away through learning their lesson rather than through any process of exclusion. Skandhas are half learned lessons of life. How is the lesson to be more fully learnt? Often the answer is by taking them more fully, literally or extremely, or by really testing them against reality. A person is stuck because a process has not been completed. It is not completed by being aborted. Thus, Buddhist therapy may often involve intensifying the koan rather than soothing or "solving" it. When Buddha met Kisagotami he made her grief more intense and in this way she became free.

Each human being is unique, yet there are universal principles. Learning the principles can help us to liberate ourselves and others in proportion as we have the good heartedness to apply them kindly and skilfully. This, however, is a circular matter, since good heartedness and this kind of skill are themselves a function of liberation from our own obsessions and blocks. Although it is important to apply oneself, one cannot pull oneself off the ground with one’s own boot straps. One needs the influence of a skilful friend. We are liberated by liberation and we find it in others if we are lucky. Nonetheless, reality is the ultimate teacher and if we can learn the lessons it is endlessly teaching us we shall go far. Having a good guide makes this process easier and more profitable more swiftly, but the guide can only do so much.

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  • thanks ! And you are such a good guide.

  • Many thanks Dharmavidya. This is really good.

    It seems that each point can be a point of transformation though often this one does not depend on self-effort...It is very difficult to change(I could say a lot about that ,-)...) It is hopeful to think that transformation uses unpredictible paths which normally extend beyond us.


  • Thank you Dharmavidya and to everyone who contributed last night.

    Namo Amida Bu.


  • Yes, it certainly tends in the right direction. As Ippen says "the end of wrong thought".

  • Thank you.  This is so useful and helpful.

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