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Āyatana (Pāli; Sanskrit) is the Buddhist term for a "sense base" or "sense sphere."[1] In Buddhism, there are six internal sense bases (or "organs" or "gates" or "doors") and six external sense bases (or "sense objects"). Thus, there are twelve sense bases in total (listed below in sense organ-object pairs):

Buddhism identifies six "senses" as opposed to the Western identification of five. In Buddhism, the mind is considered a sense organ and the mind's sense objects include sensations, perceptions, feelings and volition.[5]

Saḷāyatana (Pāli; Skt. Ṣaḍāyatana) refers to all six sense objects and six sense organs and is generally used in the context of the Twelve Causes (nidāna) of the chain of Dependent Origination.[6]

Pali textual sourcesEdit

In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha identifies that the origin of suffering (Pali, Skt.: dukkha) is craving (Pali: taṇhā; Skt.: tṛṣṇā). In the chain of Dependent Origination, the Buddha identifies that craving arises from sensations that result from contact at the six sense bases. (See Figure 2 below.) Therefore, to overcome craving and its resultant suffering, one should develop restraint of and insight into the sense bases.[7]

Sense-base contexts Edit

</td>

<tr><td colspan="6"></td></tr> <tr> <td> </td> <td style="background:#B0C4DE; color:black" colspan="5"> 
Consciousness
 </td> <td> </td> </tr> <tr><td colspan="16"> </td></tr> <tr> <tr><td colspan="16" style="border-top:1px solid DimGray; background:LightGrey; text-align:center">Figure 1: The sense bases, consciousness
and associated mental factors.</td></tr> </table>

Throughout the Pali Canon, the sense bases are referenced in hundreds of discourses.[8] In these diverse discourses, the sense bases are contextualized in different ways including:

  • Sextets (Pali: chakka):
    The sense bases include two sets of six: six sense organs (or internal sense bases) and six sense objects (or external sense bases). Based on these six pairs of sense bases, a number of mental factors arise. Thus, for instance, when an ear and sound are present, the associated consciousness arises. The arising of these three elements (Pali: dhātu) – ear, sound and ear-related consciousness – lead to what is known as "contact" which in turn causes a pleasant or unpleasant or neutral "sensation" to arise. It is from such a sensation that "craving" arises. (See Figure 1.) Such an enumeration can be found, for instance, in the "Six Sextets" discourse (Chachakka Sutta, MN 148), where the "six sextets" (six sense organs, six sense objects, six sense-specific types of consciousness, six sense-specific types of contact, six sense-specific types of sensation and six sense-specific types of craving) are examined and found to be empty of self.[9]
  • "The All" (Pali: sabba):
    In a discourse entitled, "The All" (SN 35.23), the Buddha states that there is no "all" outside of the six pairs of sense bases.[10] In the next codified discourse (SN 35.24), the Buddha elaborates that the All includes the first five aforementioned sextets (sense organs, objects, consciousness, contact and sensations).[11] References to the All can be found in a number of subsequent discourses.[12] In addition, the Abhidhamma and post-canonical Pali literature further conceptualize the sense bases as a means for classifying all factors of existence.[13]
 
  sense bases  
  S
e
n
s
a
t
i
o
n
s
   
  C
r
a
v
i
n
g
   
  Sense
Organs
Sense
Objects
 
 
 Contact
 

12
Causes

Ignorance  
 
Formations
 
Consciousness
 
Mind & Body
 
Six Sense Bases
Contact
Sensations
  Suffering Craving   Cessation   the Path  
 ← 4 Noble Truths
  Clinging  
 
Becoming
 
Birth
 
Old Age & Death
 
Figure 2: The intersection of the
Twelve Causes and the Four Noble Truths:
How the sense bases lead to suffering.
[14]

"Aflame with lust, hate and delusion" Edit

In "The Vipers" discourse (Asivisa Sutta, SN 35.197), the Buddha likens the internal sense bases to an "empty village" and the external sense bases to "village-plundering bandits." Using this metaphor, the Buddha characterizes the "empty"[16] sense organs as being "attacked by agreeable & disagreeable" sense objects.[17]

Elsewhere in the same collection of discourses (SN 35.191), the Buddha's Great Disciple Sariputta clarifies that the actual suffering associated with sense organs and sense objects is not inherent to these sense bases but is due to the "fetters" (here identified as "desire and lust") that arise when there is contact between a sense organ and sense object.[18]

In the Buddha's third discourse, "The Fire Sermon" (Adittapariyaya Sutta, SN 35.28), the Buddha describes all sense bases and related mental processes in the following manner:

"Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs."[19]

Extinguishing suffering's flame Edit

The Buddha taught that, in order to escape the dangers of the sense bases, one must be able to apprehend the sense bases without defilement. In "Abandoning the Fetters" (SN 35.54), the Buddha states that one abandons the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as impermanent" (Pali: anicca) the six sense organs, objects, sense-consciousness, contact and sensations.[20] Similarly, in "Uprooting the Fetters" (SN 35.55), the Buddha states that one uproots the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as nonself" (anatta) the aforementioned five sextets.[21]

To foster this type of penetrative knowing and seeing and the resultant release from suffering, in the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) the Buddha instructs monks to meditate on the sense bases and the dependently arising fetters as follows:

"How, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating mental object in the mental objects of the six internal and the six external sense-bases?
"Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the eye and material forms and the fetter that arises dependent on both (eye and forms); he understands how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be. He understands the ear and sounds ... the organ of smell and odors ... the organ of taste and flavors ... the organ of touch and tactual objects ... the consciousness and mental objects....
"Thus he lives contemplating mental object in mental objects ... and clings to naught in the world."[22]

Understanding sense organsEdit

When the Buddha speaks of "understanding" the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, what is meant?

According to the first-century CE Sinhalese meditation manual, Vimuttimagga, the sense organs can be understood in terms of the object sensed, the consciousness aroused, the underlying "sensory matter," and an associated primary or derived element that is present "in excess." These characteristics are summarized in the table below.

sense
organ
sense
object
sense
consciousness
sensory
matter
element
in excess
eye visual objects visual consciousness "...the three small fleshy discs round the pupil, and the white and black of the eye-ball that is in five layers of flesh, blood, wind, phlegm and serum, is half a poppy-seed in size, is like the head of a louseling...." heat (fire)
ear sounds auditory consciousness "...in the interior of the two ear-holes, is fringed by tawny hair, is dependent on the membrane, is like the stem of a blue-green bean...." space[23]
nose odors olfactory consciousness "...in the interior of the nose, where the three meet, is dependent on one small opening, is like a Koviḷāra (flower in shape)...." air
tongue tastes gustatory consciousness "...two-finger breadths in size, is in shape like a blue lotus, is located in the flesh of the tongue...." water
body tangibles tactual consciousness "...in the entire body, excepting the hair of the body and the head, nails teeth and other insensitive parts...." earth
Table 1. The Vimuttimagga's characterization of sense organs.[24]

In the fifth-century CE exegetical Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa identifies knowing about the sense bases as part of the "soil" of liberating wisdom.[25]

Related Buddhist conceptsEdit

  • Aggregates (Pali, khandha; Skt., skandha):
    In a variety of suttas, the aggregates, elements (see below) and sense bases are identified as the "soil" in which craving and clinging grow.[26] In general, in the Pali Canon, the aggregate of material form includes the five material sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue and body) and associated sense objects (visible forms, sounds, odors, tastes and tactile objects); the aggregate of consciousness is associated with the sense organ of mind; and, the mental aggregates (sensation, perception, mental formations) are mental sense objects.[27] <p>Both the aggregates and the sense bases are identified as objects of mindfulness meditation in the Satipatthana Sutta. In terms of pursuing liberation, meditating on the aggregates eradicates self-doctrine and wrong-view clinging while meditating on the sense bases eradicates sense-pleasure clinging.[28]
  • Dependent Origination (Pali: paṭicca-samuppāda; Skt.: pratitya-samutpada):
    The six sense bases (Pali: saḷāyatana; Skt.: ṣaḍāyatana) are the fifth link in the Twelve Causes (nidāna) of the chain of Dependent Origination and thus likewise are the fifth position on the Wheel of Becoming (bhavacakra). The arising of the six sense bases is dependent on the arising of material and mental objects (Pali, Skt.: nāmarūpa); and, the arising of the six sense bases leads to the arising of "contact" (Pali: phassa; Skt.: sparśa) between the sense bases and consciousness (Pali: viññāṇa; Skt.: visjñāna) which results in pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings (Pali, Skt.: vedanā).
  • Elements (Pali, Skt.: dhātu):[29]
    The eighteen elements include the twelve sense bases. The eighteen elements are six triads of elements where each triad is composed of a sense object (the external sense bases), a sense organ (the internal sense bases) and the associated sense-organ-consciousness (viññāṇa).[30] In other words, the eighteen elements are made up of the twelve sense bases and the six related sense-consciousnesses.
  • Karma (Skt.; Pali: kamma):
    In a Samyutta Nikaya discourse, the Buddha declares that the six internal senses bases (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) are "old kamma, to be seen as generated and fashioned by volition, as something to be felt."[31] In this discourse, "new kamma" is described as "whatever action one does now by body, speech, or mind." In this way, the internal sense bases provide a link between our volitional actions and subsequent perceptions.

See alsoEdit

  • Sadayatana - a lengthier discussion of the "Six Sense Bases"
  • Twelve Nidanas - the chain of endless suffering of which the sense bases are the fifth link.
  • Skandha - a similar Buddhist construct with a section comparing these two concepts
  • Satipatthana Sutta - includes a meditation using sense bases as the meditative object

ReferencesEdit

  1. "Sense base" is used for instance by Bodhi (2000b) and Soma (1999). "Sense sphere" is used for instance by VRI (1996) and suggested by Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-5), p. 105, whose third definition for Āyatana is:
    sphere of perception or sense in general, object of thought, sense-organ & object; relation, order. -- [Aung & Rhys Davids (1910),] p. 183 says rightly: 'āyatana cannot be rendered by a single English word to cover both sense-organs (the mind being regarded as 6th sense) and sense objects'. -- These āyatanāni (relations, functions, reciprocalities) are thus divided into two groups, inner (ajjhattikāni) and outer (bāhirāni)....
  2. The Pāli word translated here as "visible objects" is rūpa. In terms of the Buddhist notion of the sense bases, rūpa refers to visual objects (or objects knowable by the eye through light). This should not be confused with the use of the word rūpa in terms of the Buddhist notion of aggregates where rūpa refers to all material objects, both of the world and the body. Thus, when comparing these two uses of rūpa, the rūpa-aggregate includes the rūpa-sense-object as well as the five other sense-objects (sound, odor, taste, touch and mental objects).
  3. The Pāli word translated here as "mind" is mano. Other common translations include "intellect" (e.g., Thanissaro, 2001a) and "consciousness" (e.g., Soma, 1999).
  4. The Pāli word translated here as "mental objects" is dhammā. Other frequently seen translations include "mental phenomena" (e.g., Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1135ff.), "thoughts," "ideas" (e.g., Thanissaro, 2001a) and "contents of the mind" (VRI, 1996, p. 39) while some translators simply leave this word untranslated due to its complex overtones in the Pali literature.
  5. See, for instance, Bodhi (2000a), p. 288.
  6. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-5), p. 699.
  7. Bodhi (2005), starting at time 50:00. Bodhi (2005) references, for instance, Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No. 149, where the Buddha instructs:
    "...[K]nowing & seeing the eye as it actually is present, knowing & seeing [visible] forms... consciousness at the eye... contact at the eye as they actually are present, knowing & seeing whatever arises conditioned through contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — as it actually is present, one is not infatuated with the eye... forms... consciousness at the eye... contact at the eye... whatever arises.... The craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now this & now that — is abandoned by him. His bodily disturbances & mental disturbances are abandoned. His bodily torments & mental torments are abandoned. His bodily distresses & mental distresses are abandoned. He is sensitive both to ease of body & ease of awareness..." (Thanissaro, 1998b).
  8. The greatest concentration of discourses related to the sense bases is in the Samyutta Nikaya, chapter 35, entitled "The Book of the Six Sense Bases" (Saḷāyatana-vagga). For instance, in Bodhi (2000b) edition of the Samyutta Nikaya, this chapter alone has 248 discourses. The Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25) entry for "Āyatana" (p. 105) also mentions other discourses in each of the Pali nikayas.
  9. Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001), pp. 1129-36; and, Thanissaro (1998a).
  10. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1140; and, Thanissaro (2001b). According to Bodhi (2000b), p. 1399, n. 7, the Pali commentary regarding the Sabba Sutta states: "...[I]f one passes over the twelve sense bases, one cannot point out any real phenomenon." Also see Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 680, "Sabba" entry where sabbaŋ is defined as "the (whole) world of sense-experience."
  11. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1140; and, Thanissaro (2001a).
  12. For instance, SN 35.25 through 35.29, including the famed "Fire Sermon" (SN 35.28).
  13. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1122.
  14. This diagram is based on comments made by Bhikkhu Bodhi during a dharma talk (Bodhi, 2005, starting at time 50:00). Of course, reference to the Four Noble Truths in this context is redundant as the whole endless cycle of the Twelve Causes is a form of suffering and the last two causes, Birth and Old Age & Death, are explicitly identified as components of suffering by the Buddha in the Four Noble Truths (for instance, see the Dhammacakka Sutta). Nonetheless, Bodhi's formulation here provides a conciseness — both conceptually and, in this diagram, visually — that might otherwise not be as compelling and readily comprehended.
  15. Note that the Twelve Causes and Six Sextets describe the relationship between the sense bases and consciousness in different ways.
  16. In the context of SN 35.197, the term "empty" might simply be meant to convey "passive." It could also be used in the Buddhist sense of self-less, as in anatta (see). In fact, in SN 35.85, the Buddha applies this latter notion of emptiness (suññata) to all internal and external sense bases (Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1163-64; and Thanissaro, 1997c).
  17. Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1237-1239 (where this discourse is identified as SN 35.238); Buddhaghosa (1999), p. 490 (where this discourse is identified as S.iv,175); and, Thanissaro (2004).

    Similarly, in the last sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya's Salayatana-samyutta, entitled "The Sheaf of Barley" (which Bodhi, 2000b, identifies as SN 35.248 and Thanissaro, 1998c, as SN 35.207), the Buddha describes the sense organs as "struck" or "thrashed" by "agreeable and disagreeable" sense objects (Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1257-59; Thanissaro, 1998c).</span> </li>

  18. Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1230-1231 (where this discourse is identified as SN 35.232); and, Thanissaro (1997b). </li>
  19. Thanissaro, 1993. For other references to the sense bases as "the All," see Thanissaro (2001b) and Thanissaro (2001a). The sense bases are "the All" insomuch that all we know of the world is known through the sense bases. </li>
  20. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1148. </li>
  21. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1148. For a correspondence between impermanence and nonself, see Three marks of existence. </li>
  22. Soma (1999), section entitled, "The Six Internal and the Six External Sense-bases." </li>
  23. Unlike the other elements in this column, "space" is not considered a "primary" element but is identified as "derived material" (that is, derived from the four primaries of earth, water, fire and air). The space element is characterized by: "what delimits matter is called the element of space" (Upatissa et al., 1995, pp. 238, 240). </li>
  24. This table is based on Upatissa et al. (1995), pp. 238-240. </li>
  25. Buddhaghosa & Ñāṇamoli (1999), pp. 442-43. Other components of this "soil" include the aggregates, the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination. </li>
  26. See, for instance, SN 35.91 where the Buddha proclaims:
    "Whatever, bhikkhus, is the extent of the aggregates, the elements, and the sense bases, [a right-practicing monk] does not conceive that, does not conceive in that, does not conceive from that, does not conceive, 'This is mine.' Since he does not conceive anything thus, he does not cling to anything in the world. Not clinging, he is not agitated. Being unagitated, he personally attains Nibbāna..." (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 1171).
    </li>
  27. See, for instance, Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1122-24. Beyond the five aggregates, Nibbana is also identified as a "mental object" perceivable by "mind" (mano) (see, for instance, Bodhi, 2000a, p. 288). </li>
  28. See, for instance, Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1124-26; and, Bodhi (2005), starting at time 48:47. Also see the article on upadana for the canonical explanation of the four types of clinging: sense-pleasure, wrong-view, rites-and-rituals and self-doctrine. </li>
  29. The Pāli word referenced here as "element," dhātu, is used in multiple contexts in the Pāli canon. For instance, Bodhi (2000b), pp. 527-8, identifies four different ways that dhātu is used including in terms of the "eighteen elements" and in terms of "the four primary elements" (catudhātu). </li>
  30. In Buddhist literature, when a sense object and sense organ make contact (Pali, phassa), sense-consciousness arises. (See for instance MN 148.) </li>
  31. Bodhi (2005b), pp. 1211-12. See also Thanissaro (1997a). </li></ol>

SourcesEdit

  • Aung, S.Z. & C.A.F. Rhys Davids (trans.) (1910). Compendium of Philosophy (Translation of the Abhidhamm'attha-sangaha). Chipstead: Pali Text Society. Cited in Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-5).
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2000a). A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-02-9.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000b). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. (Part IV is "The Book of the Six Sense Bases (Salayatanavagga)".) Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (18 Jan 2005). MN 10: Satipatthana Sutta (continued) (MP3 audio file) [In this series of talks on the Majjhima Nikaya, this is Bodhi's ninth talk on the Satipatthana Sutta. In this talk, the discussion regarding the sense bases starts at time 45:36]. Available on-line at http://www.bodhimonastery.net/MP3/M0060_MN-010.mp3.
  • Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya (trans. from Pāli by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli) (1999). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. (Chapter XV is "The Bases and Elements (Ayatana-dhatu-niddesa)".) Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-00-2.
  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2001). The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
  • Upatissa, Arahant, N.R.M. Ehara (trans.), Soma Thera (trans.) and Kheminda Thera (trans.) (1995). The Path of Freedom (Vimuttimagga). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. ISBN 955-24-0054-6.
  • Vipassana Research Institute (VRI) (trans.) (1996). Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta: The Great Discourse on Establishing Mindfulness (Pali-English edition). Seattle, WA: Vipassana Research Publications of America. ISBN 0-9649484-0-0.

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