Kosha and khandha, a hypothesis.
Recently, while studying a couple early Tantric texts (the Shiva Sutras and the Heart of Recognition), I found myself thinking about energy and consciousness, which the texts say are the two most fundamental aspects of reality. Feeling into these, and reflecting on various places they appear in the yoga tradition, I thought about the early list of the Five Sheaths (kosha), which is a map of the human body from physical to subtle levels, and contains both energy (prana) and consciousness (vijñana). And as I reflected on this list, I sensed it in a parallel to the Buddhist concept of the Five Aggregates (khandha in Pali, or skandha in Sanskrit), though I had never heard them taught as parallels before. As I reflected on it, the parallel became very compelling.
I sent a draft of this hypothesis to a teacher of mine, Chip Hartranft, who is the rare scholar-practitioner who knows both the Buddhist and Yoga texts well. He sent back a note saying it had “problems”, and he’s right. The lists are not at all a direct parallel. But I think they’re an interesting parallel nonetheless. This post is an attempt to flesh out the idea, and I’ll repeat Chip’s critiques as I work through my idea, and attempt to answer his points. I’ll give a brief introduction to both lists first, then discuss each of the five concepts in parallel between the two philosophies.
When the Buddha wanted to explain to his first students, the group of five ascetics, the nature and cause of suffering, he invented a concept that hadn’t been used before in the Upanishad/Vedanta yoga systems he was trained in. The concept is a way of dividing up our experiential reality into useful categories, and he used a common word to describe them: khandha, literally “heaps”. The five khandha are commonly now translated as “aggregates”, which refers to their quality as groupings. Five heaps of stuff we experience. He named the list in his first teaching, “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma”, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, as the shorthand for why we suffer:
“The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering — in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.” (Samyutta Nikaya (SN) 56.11)
So, we suffer because we cling to these five (with the Pali in parenthesis):
1. Form (rupa) — all kinds of physical sense data including the sensations of my own body and surroundings.
2. Feeling (vedana) — the valence of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral that arises with any sense contact.
3. Perception (sañña) — the mental property of recognition and memory that arises in relation to sense contacts.
4. [Mental] Formations (sankhara) — thoughts and emotions of all kinds.
5. Consciousness (viññana) — the quality of knowing that arises in relation to any sense contact.
This list is foundational to the Buddha’s teaching because it describes the aspects of our direct experience that we cling to, mistakenly taking them to be a self or the possessions of a self (“I, me, mine”). Like many of the Buddha’s lists, it is not a list of aspects of existence in any abstract way, but a practical list to be used in the course of practice. In philosophical language we would say that the list is phenomenological, not ontological. Phenomenology is a way of describing what we can experience directly, like “this body aches”. Ontology is how we would discuss the existence of something, like “because sensation is perceived, this body must exist”. In terms of the khandha, a Buddhist phenomenological approach says, “I experience things directly, as sensation (image, sound, touch) and mental activity, and can work with my response to these experiences in order to not grasp and therefore not suffer”. An ontological approach, on the other hand, might say, “Things clearly exist” or “Things are an illusion”, and based on these assertions I can understand the world. Ontological statements address a thing at the level of Being, while phenomenology addresses it at the level of sensory contact. Ontology can seem more abstract, but is a way of theorizing or mapping Ultimate Reality, while phenomenology is generally more experiential, a way to investigate Individual Reality.
The khandha, then, are a list that specifically targets aspects of our experience in which clinging leads to suffering and distress. When we cling to forms (like objects or bodies), we take them to be a self or objects to be owned (grasping), resisted (aversion), or ignored (delusion). When we cling to the pleasantness or unpleasantness of something, the experience “pleasant” becomes grasping, and the experience ”unpleasant” becomes aversion. The experience “neutral” most often simply is not noticed, and thus leads to dullness or disembodiment. This pattern is the same for all the khandha. We experience all five of the khandha all the time, and if we cling to them being any particular way, we suffer. If we stop clinging to these aspects of experience — uproot the habits of grasping, aversion, and delusion — we stop suffering.
So I want to compare this list with another list of five aspects of existence, this one from the Upanishads, and venerated in the Vedanta and Yoga traditions, the five kosha, or “Sheaths”. The list of the kosha first appears in the Taittiriya Upanishad (TU ch. 2. I use Patrick Olivelle’s 1996 translation, though this link is to the older Müller version), which dates to around the 5th or 6th century BCE, or just a couple hundred years before the Buddha. The Five Sheaths are a series of increasingly subtle levels of the Self, and describe our bodily and energetic reality as humans:
1. Food (anna-maya kosha) — the body, seen in a very literal way, as created out of food, anna.
2. Energy (prana-maya kosha) — the energy body, or the experience of prana (energy, breath) in the body.
3. Mind (mano-maya kosha) — mental and emotional experience, especially language.
4. Wisdom (vijñana-maya kosha) — the faculty of discrimination and clear seeing, vijñana is commonly translated as “wisdom”, but other translators use “understanding” (Müller), and even “perception” (Olivelle), which might be rather confusing! It literally means something like “knowledge (jñana) that separates (vi-)”, thus discrimination is perhaps most literal. (The standard word for “wisdom” is not jñana but prajña, which is literally “highest (pra) knowledge (jña)”, so translating it as the Wisdom Sheath is perhaps misleading.)
5. Bliss (ananda-maya kosha) — not simply deep happiness, but the vast, subtle bliss of Being itself. Ananda is the final sheath, and the one that is closest to the Absolute Self, Atman. An important understanding of ananda is that it is not pleasure dependent on material (or even mental) conditions, but an extremely subtle aspect of our fundamental Nature, which is always present, though it is often veiled by the experience of the grosser levels.
The kosha are a map of the Embodied Self (atman), from the physical body through increasingly subtle levels of existence, or aspects of human experience. In the Upanishad it is described in specifically human terms, saying that these all exist in the same space and appearance as a person, or purusha. Yogic practice in relation to these kosha is to train ourselves in meditation to perceive each Sheath, and to bring our awareness to subtler and subtler experiences, till we realize, or learn to rest in, Atman itself, the Absolute Self. The suffix maya after each term refers to the illusory aspect of each level. Each level is just a covering, a veil, obscuring the fundamental reality of Atman, or Absolute Self.
We can see how this list of 5 aspects of experience is similar to the list of the khandha: both proceed from material to immaterial, gross to subtle, and both suggest that a trained yogi can experience increasingly subtle layers of experience with the goal of liberation, or realization. But I will propose that the parallel is deeper and even more interesting. When this parallel occurred to me, I went searching for it online, and (in a short search — I’m sure I could look deeper) didn’t find anything in mainstream Buddhist or Yoga/Vedanta sources, but found this in a Theosophical Society magazine, Lucifer, published in March 1893:
“The Skandhas seem to bear a striking resemblance to the Vedantic Koshas or Sheaths, but it would require one who was not only learned in both systems, but who had also some practical experience of the inner planes of consciousness, to establish a just correspondence between them.”
Well, there are now a few of us who are, at least a little bit, learned in both systems, and with some practical experience. My hypothesis is that the lists describe parallel levels of experience and reality, with the Buddhist list describing the experiential aspect that most directly relates to the project of the cessation of suffering, while the Vedanta list describes the fundamental reality operating behind each experience. Thus the khandha are phenomenological, while the kosha are ontological. This is similar to saying that the khandha are subjective, while the kosha are objective.
Did the Buddha intend this parallel or is it just a historical coincidence? I don’t know. The radical historical hypothesis would be that the Buddha crafted the khandha specifically as an answer to the kosha. I’ve never heard any teacher or scholar suggest this, but I’ll let you know if any show up to either validate or shoot me down!
I’ll address each pair of concepts in turn.
1. Form and Food: rupa-khandha and anna-maya kosha.
Buddhist texts use rupa to refer both to the physical body AND to all kinds of physical phenomena, in other words, everything that we can touch, hear, see, smell, and taste. Because of this, the khandha of Form is often taught as referring to everything material, as in this sutta, which names it as the product of the 4 elements, experienced both internally (aspects of bodily experience that correspond with each element) and externally (as a reflection on the impermanence of external objects):
“And what, friends, is form as a clinging-aggregate? The four great existents and the form derived from them. And what are the four great existents? They are the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, & the wind property.
“And what is the earth property? The earth property can be either internal or external. What is the internal earth property? Whatever internal, within oneself, is hard, solid, & sustained [by craving]: head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach, feces, or whatever else internal, within oneself, is hard, solid, & sustained: This is called the internal earth property…” (Majjhima Nikaya (MN) 28, which goes on to describe how we physically experience each of the four elements.)
When I suggested that rupa and anna were parallels, Chip responded that rupa is broader than anna, referring to all material substances, not just the body. He’s right, it does. But I think there’s enough emphasis on rupa being body-centric to justify a strong relationship between the two. Even when external forms are discussed in the suttas, they are usually discussed in terms of the 6 Sense Bases, in other words, as subjective sensory experiences, not as somehow independent forms themselves. This would blossom in later philosophical schools as a debate as to whether so-called “external” things exist at all, or if they are simply the product of the mind.
What does it mean to assert that a thing exists, after all? In the early Buddhist view, this kind of ontological inquiry seems to have been deemphasized in favor of the pragmatic practice that leads more directly to the end of suffering: deconstruction of the stream of sense impressions and the mental factors that go into assembling meaningful experience from them. When I see a flower, I’m to note simply that three things have arisen (simultaneously and inseparably): the form cognizable by the eye, the eye organ itself, and eye-consciousness, or the knowing that seeing is taking place. Both the form and the eye itself are rupa, and the consciousness specific to the sense door is viññana. The key here is that the “external” form, the flower, is relevant to my process only when this process is happening, in other words, when I am in sense contact with it. Thus even an external form is essentially a bodily process, and can only be contacted via a bodily process.
There are also important references in the Pali Canon (the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teaching, which I am basing my discussion on) that specifically use rupa to refer to the physical body, excluding the “external”:
“And why do you call it ‘form’ [rupa]? Because it is afflicted [ruppati], thus it is called ‘form.’ Afflicted with what? With cold & heat & hunger & thirst, with the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles. Because it is afflicted, it is called form.” (SN 22.79)
This emphasis on personal physical experience is in harmony with the general tendency of the Buddha to interpret situations in relation to direct experience rather than as philosophical abstractions. The aspect of a sense object that is most important for the practitioner is the moment of subjective contact with it and the response that arises in the mind: either grasping or non-grasping, and thus suffering or freedom. The important reflection on rupa is how we cling to it, and thus how we mistakenly take it to be a self and think we can thus control our experience of it, as the Buddha asks his students in his second discourse, “On the Not-Self Characteristic” (using the pronoun “my” to qualify “form”):
“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ ” (SN 22.59)
Again here rupa reads as specifically describing the body of the practitioner. Because of this quite common tendency toward an interpretation of rupa as body, I see a parallel with anna-maya kosha, the Food Sheath. The Taittiriya describes it this way, paralleling the description of rupa arising from the four elements:
“From this very self (atman) did space come into being; from space, air; from air, fire; from fire, the waters; from the waters, the earth; from the earth, plants; from plants, food; and from food, man. Now, a man here is formed from the essence of food.” (TU 2.1)
So while both versions describe the nature of the human body, the Buddhist version emphasizes our tendency to cling to it. Both Buddhist quotes above describe undesirable aspects of the body: its parts (MN 28), which would become the formal practice of visualizing/sensing each one and reflecting on its impurity (asucino), and several ways that it experiences unpleasant sensations (SN 22.79). The Vedantic version is essentially a creation myth, narrating the origin of people as arising from the primal elements of nature.
Two other interesting parallels, the first from Chip:
“Actually, I see a correspondence between kosha and the Buddhist teaching of 4 nutriments (ahara) that humans crave: food, contact, volition, and consciousness.” (Chip Hartranft, personal communication)
This list of the ahara is a very interesting one, and does parallel the kosha in some ways. Food is a clear match, though this list is of nutriments the person craves more than a list of the person’s constituent parts. Still, it moves in the same pathway, gross to subtle, with substantial parallels. The issues would be with the placement of volition (the Buddhists put it in sankhara-khandha, while Vedanta puts it in vijñana-maya kosha) and contact, as well as the dissonance between the multiple usages of viññana/vijñana I mentioned above.
The other concept that comes to mind as I want to propose rupa as being centered on the physical body and its nature as arising from food is the commentarial (i.e. not used by the Buddha in the original discourses) idea of the kalapa, the smallest unit of matter. Kalapa are the indivisible atoms of early Buddhism, and form the basic substance of rupa. Kalapa consist of 8 aspects:
Earth, water, fire, and air (the four Great Elements), and…
Color, smell, taste, and nutritive essence.
With those last four being present in every kalapa, is it possible that kalapa may be specifically conceived of as food-based? And so if kalapa are the primary building blocks of rupa, maybe rupa is closer to anna, food, than it initially appears.
2. Feeling and Energy: vedana-khandha and prana-maya kosha.
Vedana (feeling, or “feeling-tone”) in Buddhism is very specific. It refers not to all “feelings” (in the way that we use feeling as a synonym for emotion), but just to the basic valence, or tone, of pleasant (sukha), unpleasant (dukkha), or neutral (adukkham-asukha, “neither pleasant nor unpleasant”) that arises with every sense contact. And in this specificity it shines a light on the primary way that we create suffering for ourselves: based on pleasant and unpleasant sensations, we tend to grasp or push away whatever’s happening, and when neutral sensations come, we tend to space out or not notice them. Vedana is a naturally arising phenomenon, but gives rise to preference so habitually that it becomes the primary doorway to dissatisfaction.
Prana in yoga is most often translated as “energy” or “breath-energy”, so the parallel here might not immediately be apparent. Prana is described in the Upanishad (TU 2.2) as moving in five ways, which would develop into the well-known Five Pranas: outward (prana), downward (apana), centering (samana), upward (udana), and radiating (vyana). We can read from this that prana, like the wind with which it is associated (as breath), has the essential activity of movement. A simple way to generalize these movements is to see them each as manifestations of three core activities: expansion, contraction, and pausing. We can feel these basic phases in the inhale, exhale, and pause of the breath. And the Tantric tradition will emphasize the primal dyad of expansion-contraction in its description of the fundamental activity of the universe as shakti (energy), or spanda (pulsation).
What if vedana describes our habitual reaction to the pulsations of prana? When expansive energy is present we often perceive it as pleasant; when contractive energy is present we often perceive it as unpleasant; and when energy stills we often perceive it as dull or fail to notice it at all. This would make vedana clearly the aspect of our relationship with prana that specifically leads to clinging. Expansion, contraction, and pause are natural occurrences, and have no innate good or bad nature to them. But we feel these changes and oscillations as vedana, and then commonly react to them in habitual ways, namely by reinforcing preference and thus suffering.
Of course, there are many examples of seemingly contractive sense contacts (like the taste of salt, or a yoga gesture like a bandha, or swaddling a baby) that we might perceive as pleasant, thus upsetting the parallel. I would assert in response that the feeling of pleasantness in relation to a contractive stimulus is more specifically related to the mind state or energy that contact brings about. Swaddling is physically contractive, but the energetic state of being contained, grounded, or gathered can be quite pleasant, and expansive, as the mind relaxes and opens.
(This one is perhaps a stretch, and I can see how I might be contorting the teachings a bit here to fit my inspiration. Let me know what you think!)
3. Perception and Mind: sañña-khandha and mano-maya kosha.
Sañña (perception) refers to the aspect of perception that recognizes and names an object. The Pali sutta, interestingly, uses colors as the paradigmatic object of recognition:
“And why do you call it ‘perception’? Because it perceives, thus it is called ‘perception.’ What does it perceive? It perceives blue, it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white. Because it perceives, it is called perception.” (SN 22.79. Other translations use “recognition”.)
Sañña is not the same as manas (“mind”, the same word in Pali as its Sanskrit cousin), and the way that the Buddha uses “perception” or “recognition” here is a tiny subset of mental activity. Most mental activity, like thoughts, emotions, and all other conceptual activity land in the fourth khandha, Formations (sankhara). Again, the reason for the narrower focus is to bring our focus to an element of experience we cling to. Sañña describes the basic activity of identification: of objects, other beings, and ourselves: we name what we sense the way we name colors. All of the khandha can be mistakenly clung to as I or mine, but this one really nails it down! If we don’t know what a thing is called — and it takes recognition (which implies Time: past and present) to do so — we can’t so easily cling to it or imagine it as anything but changing phenomena in constant flux.
And so sañña-khandha is where language, as the names of things, arises. And it is where time, i.e. memory, which is necessary for recognition, arises. We’ll see the parallel to language in the Mind Sheath, mano-maya kosha:
Manas, again, means simply “mind”, and through yoga history is used to describe many different mental factors including the activities of ego and personality. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, however, mano-maya kosha is described very specifically as consisting of various sets of verses, ritual chants, and grammatical rules in the four Vedas. What are we to make of this? It doesn’t describe “mind” in any way we are used to seeing. Even more mysteriously, this verse follows:
“Before they reach it, words turn back,
together with the mind;
One who knows that bliss of Brahman,
he is never afraid.” (TU 2.3-4)
What do words turn back from? From the Ultimate, or Brahman, the Unlimited, and therefore in some ways un-nameable or unspeakable. (More on Brahman below.)
If manas, in this early usage, refers specifically to the linguistic aspect of mind, it suddenly appears more similar to sañña than it initially seemed. Manas is perhaps the faculty of language itself, mythically embodied in the verses and chants of the primal Veda, while sañña describes the way that we use language to name sensory objects, and how these names are the fuel for mistakenly identifying with them or imputing to them an ontological solidity they do not have. As we name things, we give them a solidity that they did not previously have.
In many wisdom traditions, speech itself is the vehicle for creation: “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1.1), or in the beautiful Sepher Yetzirah from the Kabbalah. Speech is central to the conception of creation in many ways in the yoga tradition, in the Rig Veda (10.130, in which the ritual chant itself is the shuttle that weaves the tapestry of the cosmos together), the Upanishads (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1, venerating Om, and a very mysterious creation myth in the Brhandaranyaka Upanishad 1.2, in which Death/Hunger creates the world by chanting, then copulates with Speech, gets pregnant, the duration of the pregnancy creates the time span “a year”, thus creating cyclical time altogether, and upon giving birth, roars, creating, again, speech), along with many other examples.
Digression: nama-rupa, Brahman, Nibbana
Returning to the “words turn back” verse from the Taittiriya for a moment, one Pali scholar, Richard Gombrich, pulls out a parallel sutta (SN 1.27) that asks the same question (thanks, mikenz66 on dhammawheel.com for this): “From what do words turn back?” (Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, 151).
This is a compelling word-for-word parallel, but it seems to be driven by an unusual translation choice. The word being translated here as “words” is sara, which can be translated either as “words” (like the Sanskrit svara) or “streams”. Gombrich says “words” is right, and the commentary that prefers “streams” is wrong, but the other translators I’ve read of this verse (the old by Rhys Davids and the new by Bhikkhu Bodhi) translate it as “flood” and “streams”.
I consider Bhikkhu Bodhi the gold standard of translators nowadays, so I assume he’s correct, but speculatively I’m interested in the “words” version. IF sara meant “words”, and otherwise the verse was the same as Bodhi’s translation, it would read like this:
“From where do words turn back?
Where does the round no longer revolve?
Where does name-and-form cease,
Stop without remainder?”
“Where water, earth, fire, and air,
do not gain a footing:
It is from here that words turn back,
Here that the round no longer revolves;
Here name-and-form ceases,
Stops without remainder.” (SN 1.27, trans. B. Bodhi except my changing of “streams” to “words”, after Gombrich. My italics.)
This substitution not only makes a lovely parallel to the Taittiriya, but links “words” to “name-and-form” in a nice way. Name-and-form (the arising-together of mental and material experience, which in the process of Dependent Origination is the precondition for the activity of the six senses) ceases at the spot where words turn back. How can there be “name” without “words”? This points again to language as the core aspect of mental activity that imputes a solidity to things — that we could say “creates” things. The compound “name-and-form” is important to the list of the khandha, so let’s stay with it for a moment here.
Name-and-form (nama-rupa) is another way of dividing up the five khandha, used, among many other places, in the Buddhist analytical texts called the Abhidhamma, which proposes a list called the Fourfold Ultimate Reality (catudha paramattha):
1. Consciousness (citta) — khandha #5, viññana
2. Mental Factors (cetasika) — khandha #2-4, vedana, sañña, sankhara
3. Matter (rupa) — khandha #1, rupa
4. The Unconditioned (nibbana) — beyond the khandha
The language element is again present here in the use of “name” (nama) as the umbrella for many kinds of mental activity, though it refers not just to language, but to all kinds of mental and emotional activity. In his critique of my initial note about this parallel lists idea, Chip brought in nama as the root of the 3 middle khandha:
“In the same vein, feeling (vedana) is nama – a mental process that is only known as the conditioned result of its contact with the sensing mind (manas) and mental consciousness (viññana). Gotama is often said to have defined nama as feeling, apperception, volition, contact, and attention (rupa-sañña-cetana-phassa-manasikara) [as in SN 12.2 on its role in Dependent Origination]. I don’t really see any connection between vedana and prana, which was regarded not as nama (nor rupa, for that matter) but as the lifeforce, as aliveness itself.
“Apperception (sañña) is also nama, being the additive (sam = with), mentally created label, feature, or category involved in distinguishing and recognizing events through a similar convergence of mental object, mind, and consciousness. It’s certainly related to the role of manas, but a narrow subset of manomayakosha, I would say. This might be more of a match, than vedana, though.” (Chip Hartranft, private communication)
So I agree that sañña is a narrow subset of manas, but like the other pairs I’ve proposed (as in my possibly fanciful connection between vedana and prana), I’m fascinated by how skillfully the Buddha emphasizes exactly the aspect we must see clearly in order to awaken: the aspect that is affected (and afflicted) by clinging. It is this that makes me see them in parallel: not that they are the same, but that in each of the five aspects, the Buddha engages in a similar maneuver, turning the ontological category in the kosha into a phenomenological project (or we could say a soteriological one: oriented toward salvation).
4. Mental Formations and Consciousness: sankhara-khandha and vijñana-maya kosha.
This pair is the least easy to see, perhaps. Sankhara, “Mental Formations”, also called “Volitional Formations” or “Fabrications”, refers to the mental quality that gathers, assembles, or compounds other phenomena. We casually put most thoughts and emotions into this category, presumably because they are compound experiences — consisting of a mix of ego, story, desire, feeling, sensation, and other conditions. Everything assembled out of conditions (that is not one of the other, simpler, khandha) is sankhara. How might this be the experiential side of vijñana?
As discussed above, vijñana in the Taittiriya Upanishad is translated by Olivelle as “perception”, and by Müller as “understanding”. “Wisdom” is still the most used translation, however. Georg Feuerstein uses “knowledge” and suggests “higher knowledge”, synonymous with buddhi, or “higher [than manas] mind” (Feuerstein, Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga, 328). Along with these, the literal “discrimination” will also be useful here. The fifth khandha is viññana, the Pali version of the Sanskrit vijñana, generally translated as “consciousness”, not the fourth, and would seem the appropriate parallel for the Sanskrit vijñana, making this pair out of order. But the usages of the words viññana and vijñana are totally different.
Viññana as the fifth khandha specifically describes the quality of knowing a sense object. It is a much narrower quality than “wisdom” suggests. So viññana/vijñana aren’t a great parallel (unless we stretch ourselves to gloss “wisdom” as “that which sees all distinctions clearly”, which actually seems like a pretty nice definition), but are sankhara and vijñana?
The Taittiriya is mysterious here, offering as the aspects of this Sheath the five qualities of faith, truth, the real, performance, and celebration. The first four of these are interesting in relation to vijñana as discrimination. How do we know something is real? How is something performed? Through discrimination, or clear seeing of differences. What is performed here is the sacrificial ritual:
“It’s perception that conducts the sacrifice.
It’s perception that performs the rites.
It’s perception that all the gods
Venerate as the foremost Brahman.” (TU 2.5)
“Perception” here is obviously not the same as sañña, as the verse is concerned with these qualities that all revolve around doing [the ritual], where sañña is more passive, just recognizing. Read this verse with “knowledge”, “understanding”, “discrimination”, or “wisdom” in place of “perception” and feel into the gist of the verse. Knowledge itself, which is to say “the one who reifies — is identified with — self and other”, performs the sacrifice. Maybe we can gloss faith, truth, and the real as being concerned with [right] perception or higher knowledge, while performance and celebration are about assembling the proper ritual actions, and more broadly be the roots of actions itself. This points again to sankhara’s aspect as volition (cetana), and one of the common translations: Volitional Formations.
If we think of vijñana not as the broad quality of wisdom but simply as discrimination or knowledge, that which knows distinctions (vi-) between things, we can recognize a parallel with sankhara, that which forms or fabricates. Both speak to how we make sense of the world as it comes to us in an endless stream of ontologically equivalent sensory contacts. We understand things to be separate from each other (for instance, in how we have learned to perceive distance and distinction between objects, even though we are experientially presented with a visual field that is just a mass of colors and shapes), and we group phenomena together in ways that make sense.
These higher-order mental activities are the fundamental quality addressed at this level of experience in both systems. There is no other place in the map for them, with the fifth khandha and kosha reserved for a much subtler process, and the third being much simpler. So in the fourth khandha and kosha both, we see the full-blown mental-emotional process playing out, from the parsing of sense data beyond recognition/perception (sañña/manas) into compound forms and concepts, through the arising of volition, which will give rise to action itself.
The translation of vijñana-maya kosha as the Wisdom Sheath here seems then like an incongruity unless we take it to refer to the most clarified aspect of these mental processes. It is still a covering, not Ultimate Reality, just as sankhara is still conditioned phenomena, not Nibbana. Wisdom perhaps here is then the expression of deep knowing rather than the experience of deep clarity of mind. Understanding grows from an experience of deep clarity, most specifically through contact with the subtler kosha of ananda or with Atman itself, and that understanding is expressed as wisdom.
In each of these lists, all the distinctions aside, the core teaching is not to take anything conditioned to be the self. Whether you call your true nature Atman, the Absolute Self, or practice with anatta/anatman, seeing every experience as “not-self”, the path is similar. See through the limitations of ego and body, realizing that nothing can be clung to as I or mine. From that deep release, the bliss of realization begins to dawn.
5. Consciousness and Bliss: viññana-khandha and ananda-maya kosha.
Since we already looked at the distinctions around viññana/vijñana, I’ll just reiterate the Buddhist version. Consciousness as a khandha is very simply the experience of knowing that arises concomitant with any sense impression. It is no more than this, and so a much more limited activity than “wisdom” or even “consciousness” in the Yoga and Vedanta usage. It is an aspect of nama in the nama-rupa model, and we cling to it in the same way we cling to any of the khandha: by mistakenly reifying it, taking it as evidence of a stable self, an unchanging individual subjectivity. And like all the khandha, this leads to suffering because we will inevitably be disappointed when impermanence (anicca) of both subject and object manifests.
Ananda, ”bliss”, seems like a very different phenomena than this bare knowing. Some teachers interpret ananda-maya kosha as referring to an ecstatic meditation state, perhaps similar to absorption (jhana/dhyana), and the description in the Taittiriya might support this view. Like all the kosha, it is a veil, so not Ultimate Reality yet, even though it is mighty close. It mentions four experiences: pleasure, delight, thrill, and bliss, and supports them all on Brahman. So this bliss is “the bliss of Brahman“, as sung in the earlier verse.
However, just because these pleasures are described, I don’t see evidence to assert that they are conditioned specifically on meditative concentration. The kosha describe the constituent layers of human reality, and thus do not require any particular state to exist. Each kosha is said to suffuse the earlier ones completely, and so it is easy to imagine or craft a meditative sequence that would bring the practitioner into contact and fullness with the experience of each kosha in turn. Such a practice might lead to experiencing ananda as a blissful meditative absorption (perhaps akin to 2nd and 3rd jhana in the Buddhist model, characterized by rapture (piti) and ease (sukha)) and culminating in the deep equanimity of one-pointedness (ekagatta, the characteristic quality of 4th jhana). That’s a whole different parallel that I’m not ready to propose, but the sequence, like many in both systems, moves again from gross to subtler experiences. But meditative practice does not feel central to the description in the Upanishad, where the list of the kosha immediately follows a short creation narrative in which all things arise out of Brahman, from the elements to food to us. This is a description of reality, not a path of cultivation. (Yet. The kosha will certainly later be interpreted as implying a sequence of practice, and the yoga tradition will invent practices to access and transcend all five layers. But fundamentally I think it’s just a map of what exists.)
So then, what is ananda-maya kosha, and how might it be the ontological parallel to viññana-khandha? If we go back to the Taittiriya and focus the phrase “the bliss of Brahman”, we get a hint.
Ananda is the subtlest layer of manifestation to surround/veil the Absolute itself, Brahman. Often we see the kosha listed with (capital A) Atman at the center, because the Great Self, Atman, can be seen as synonymous with Brahman. Bliss is so central to Brahman that it is included in the list of three factors that characterize the Absolute: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, or sat-cit-ananda. It exists, is aware, and rests in subtle delight. This triad of qualities, and the dyad of consciousness and bliss will resonate forward through many yoga traditions, flowering in a slightly evolved form as the Tantric dyad of Śiva and Śakti, in which primal non-dual Being differentiates into the basic dyad of Śiva as Pure Consciousness and Śakti as Pure Energy — which is experienced by Consciousness as Bliss — or to emphasize their non-duality, “blissful Self-awareness”. (It was Tantra, specifically my recent study of the Śiva Sutras and the Pratyabhijña-hrdayam (Heart of Recognition), that triggered this whole hypothesis, which began with the incongruous parallels of consciousness-bliss and vedana-prana.)
If consciousness and bliss are the twin expressions of fundamental Being (Brahman or Atman), then what is the most fundamental experience of beings in the absence (anatta) of a fixated self (atman)? The bare quality of knowing: viññana. The direct contact of a mental factor to the objects of sense. No deeper “consciousness” (in the Vedantic or Tantric sense) will work here, since there is no deeper thing to root it to. The only “deeper than this” we have in Buddhism is Nibbana/Nirvana (in Pali/Sanskrit), the unconditioned, unbound, timeless. Viññana is a cool (as in “cooled” from the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion) parallel to ananda if we see it in terms of the Buddha’s insistence on seeing the not-self characteristic in every experience. Bliss IS the experience of this level of subtle Being, but if we want to be free, unbound from the subtle tendency to cling to experiences (especially subtle spiritual ones) as I or mine, focusing on the bare knowing quality of experience will be more useful. Like all the others, viññana as an “aggregate subject to grasping” becomes a tool of insight when we notice again and again that we tend to reify sense contact. Releasing that habit, resting in the deep simplicity of direct contact with things, free from neurotic conceptual overlay, we finally, perhaps, stop.
It is so tempting here to easily say, “Thus, Brahman = Nirvana!” But it is only possible to parallel Brahman and Atman to Nibbana if we remember that Atman (“Great Self”) does not mean an individual self, even an infinitely expanded one. Great Self is infinite fullness (purnam), where nibbana tends to be spoken of in terms of Emptiness (shunyata) or Cessation (nirodha). They are compatible if we remember that the Absolute in Vedanta and Yoga is just as impersonal as the Absolute in Buddhism. The difference is in the idea of atman (individual self): whether we think it sustains through changing conditions and bodies or not. The Buddha famously would not say whether a self (atman) exists or not, but insisted that more important was the fact that we cannot experientially locate anything that we can identify as being that changeless personal ground. More liberating, he insisted, is to intimately sense the flux of impermanence (anicca), the unsatisfactoriness that flux creates (dukkha), and the lack of any solid self behind it all (anatta). And the laboratory in which to sense these is the five khandha. The aggregates are laid out to be a profound map of the ways we get lost, and exactly what to pay attention to if we want to get found.
The kosha, on the other hand, seem to be a map of the same territory, and even divided up in similar chunks, but with a different purpose. They show us what we really ARE, and hint at how we came into being. They offer a map of the processes that underly all of experience, and offer them at a high level of abstraction. And when we work to unbind ourselves from the specific tendencies to cling that the khandha point us toward, we might be able to sense directly, perhaps in deep meditation, the underlying quality, or flavor (rasa) of each kosha. I am made of food, moved by energy, guided by mind, deduce patterns in my experience, and finally understand that a deep and subtle ease pervades it all.
And whether in the end I experience the Infinite as expressing itself through me as an ongoing wave (atman, leading to Atman or Brahman) or as discreet particles of experience that arise and cease (anicca and anatta leading to Nibbana), the result is Liberation from ignorance, grasping, and suffering.
This investigation has been fun, but I still haven’t found enough solid historical or textual verification to make any proper scholarly assertions.
Did the Buddha intentionally make the list of the khandha a skillful mirror of the kosha? Did he even know the Taittiriya Upanishad? (Pali scholars, do you know of places where he references this list or text?)
Is it a coincidence based on ancient Indian philosophers’ love of lists of 5 things that go from gross to subtle?
Are the connections too historically non-linear to be justification for my idea? (Like, is it just cheating to bring in a Tantric text from 850 CE as part of my inspiration around two texts from 500+ BCE?)
Essentially, I consider this an exercise in creative theology, but I will send it to some real Pali scholars and see what they say. Thanks for reading! Whatever its merits as scholarship, I hope it is inspiring and a delight for you in your own practice.