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I've recently begun reading the new book Cynicism and Magic - Intelligence & Intuition on the Buddhist Path by Chogyam Trungpa. This is my first book by this renowned teacher.

In Chapter 3 of this book I read an explanation of the five skandhas I've never seen before. The explanation mesmerized as it stirred memories of a profound experience long ago in my past. After reading this chapter I was struck by the seeming similarity to an answer I vaguely remembered reading on this site about dependent origination. With a little bit of search of the site and remembering it came from our Andriy - I've found it. This answer on D.O. (dependent origination) resonated deeply with me at the time although I was not really sure why.

Here is a small excerpt from Chapter 3, page 25-28 of the book:

The starting point for the skandhas is bewilderment. We are completely bewildered. Not in the sense of stupidity or ignorance, but we are bewildered in the sense of not having anything to lay our hands on. Everybody possesses this bewilderment. Whether you call it emptiness, openness, or groundlessness, it is always there.

THE FIRST SKANDHA: FORM

At some point, we try to make a home out of this situation. We would like to build a secure home out of our bewilderment. We grope all over the place, not having such a thing as ourselves. Though there is a sense of flow, we make that flow itself an entity, a false entity. That constant groping creates "you" and "other." A sense of duality, a sense of separateness develops, which is a false notion. But that falsity seems to be much more secure than the truth, which has no substance and which we find somewhat overpowering. We don't want to face reality -- it's too brilliant, too dazzling, too hot, too cold. We would like to compromise and make ourselves comfortable.

You have no idea whether you have the right to do this or not, because nobody's judging, and that groping process, trying to find a base of some kind, creates a further sense of being lost. You begin to realize that you have to provide your own ground, your own seat, your own rug, your own chair, your own table, your own ceiling, and your own walls. All kinds of things have to be created, otherwise there isn't anything at all. That kind of basic panic, or perhaps you could call it basic creativity, is the origin of the first skandha, what's known as the skandha of form. You made everything out of nothing. There is a dichotomy there: you haven't made it, but you have made it, somehow. You made false out of true.

According to Buddha's teaching, this first experience of bewilderment is called "basic bewilderment." It is basic to everything; it's a constant experience in everyday life. It takes place in every conversation, between activities, and during activities. Our life is governed by this false notion of something that we are holding on to. Traditionally this basic bewilderment is known as avidya. Vidya in Sanskrit means "inner cognitive mind functioning," and the a at the beginning means "non," so avidya means "ignorance." Avidya is not cognition in the ordinary sense of the consciousness that functions in daily life; it is the subconscious mind that has a sense of double-ness, two-ness and duality. It has a sense of wholesomeness, a sense of being. "I exist because the other exists. Therefore, I could create my realm and have a sense of being." That experience also becomes, ironically, very powerfully joyful to a lot of people. We say, "Phew, we made it. We found it." We found what? We found it. There is something, at least there is something. What is it? "I don't know, but nevertheless there is something happening. Isn't that great? Something is taking place." It is extremely hopeful. It's worth celebrating. But at this point we are celebrating avidya. We are celebrating that we are completely stupid.

And then stupidity replaces bewilderment. Of course, it is really comfortable to be stupid. You could play dumb, as if nothing is happening around you, as if everything's okay. You never look around and you never ask questions. Questions such as "How?" "Why?" "When?" "Where?" and "What?" are regarded as very dangerous to utter. We simply say, "is," "am," and "I am." "I," if you just say it by itself, feels somewhat shaky, unless you say "am," which qualifies the I-ness. Then we need a further reference point and reassurance, so it becomes "I am happy," or "I am sad," which qualifies the whole, stupid statement. "I am happy," or "I am sad," or "I am such and such," is the utterance of stupidity.

That's the basic form that we have created, which isn't to say -- and I would like to emphasize this -- that this situation was created "once upon a time," that there was a "fall of man" and then everybody was bad and confused. This experience, this situation, takes place constantly in our everyday lives. The basis of our operation, and activity, is bewilderment and stupidity.

THE SECOND SKANDHA: FEELING

From there, we develop the second stage of ego's development, which is the skandha of feeling. You feel piggish, dumb and you are growing -- now that you have created a solidified self. You have developed a big head, a thick neck, and a swollen face. Your eyes are tiny, your mouth can hardly move, and your ears are sinking in. You are almost a cast-iron statue of "me" sitting there. You can't even turn your head because your neck is stiff and swollen. You begin to feel that the silence of the stupidity that you have created is somewhat suspicious. There may be something wrong. You turn to look around, back and forth, trying to develop some kind of feeling. From there, we grope around to experience distinct feedback -- pleasurable, painful or neutral feelings. It's like the traditional analogy of the pig exploring piggery, trying to find food, trying to develop some kind of discrimination. So if you come across a pebble, you reject it; if you come across a piece of meat or fruit, you try to eat it up. It's a very simple level of feeling, an animal or ape instinct.

Maybe you have developed an eloquent or beautiful style, as if nothing is wrong. You try to hide your clumsiness and try to avoid letting anybody else see it. We usually try to be very smooth and genteel. However, that sense of animal-ness or ape-ness is still there, and is particularly evident when we begin to deal with the sharp edges of our experience, which we usually ignore. The sharp edges of situations challenge our stupidity, and present the potential of nonexistence, nonego. You try to be graceful, but never quite succeed. You feel as if someone is watching over your shoulder all the time. You are being extremely clumsy, but at the same time, you are inquisitive. You want to explore the world outside. You want to give and take at a very simple level. This is feeling.

I want to note a few points that I find unique about this presentation. Please let me know if you read this in the same way?

  1. The emphasis on the fact what is described is a constant occurrence in every moment of life. Trungpa specifically emphasizes that he is not talking about a singular event, but rather "this situation, takes place constantly in our everyday lives."
  2. In explaining form, Trungpa seems to be starting with the first link in D.O. of Avidya which he describes as basic bewilderment that comes about when primordial mind experiences a non-existent or groundless base. Groundless experience is described as overpowering and uncomfortable. This uncomfortable-ness gives rise to bewilderment.
  3. The description of the second skandha really comes across to me vividly as a description of how a baby might see the world. The other impression I get is of someone very confused or high trying to disguise the fact and play off like they are fine. Like someone freaking out or paranoid on weed, but acting as if - or not wanting to admit it to themselves - that everything is fine.

And now some questions... Is this presentation unique to Trungpa or can it be found in other dharma? Where can I find Trungpa laying out his presentation of D.O. explicitly? If you read the rest of the chapter he goes on to talk about the other skandhas and it all seems to me like a description of D.O. inline with Andriy's answer but he never mentions D.O. explicitly. Anyone else read this book yet? Any other impressions?

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  • It seems like a fairly straightforward presentation of the skandhas.. I read his Shambala Warrior book, & the parts about using magic to get what we want made me uneasy, so I read up about him, & he does not seem a reliable person to follow: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%B6gyam_Trungpa#Controversies
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 17, 2022 at 10:02
  • Hi, I am aware of the controversy around this teacher thanks.
    – user13375
    Jul 17, 2022 at 16:56

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I don’t find this presentation unique to CTR, though of course his style is unique. He lays out the progression perhaps more clearly in The Development of Ego. It’s the bit that starts with a grain of sand popping its head up.

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