We humans are animals, and we engage with the world through our senses and bodies. Everything about our lives—and everything our Dharma practice engages with—is embodied. When the Buddha discussed the experience of suffering, he talked about how we connect with the world around us and react in skillful or unskillful ways. Connection comes through the senses, but the Buddhist tradition conceives of the senses differently than just our usual five. The most common list is of six “sense bases” or “sense fields” which include the five physical senses and a cognitive sense that processes the complex emotional and mental content that creates our story and sense of self. Understanding the sense bases is central to understanding liberation because suffering arises directly from sensory contact, and it is in sensory contact that we can let go of clinging.
The list of the six sense bases appears in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), as part of the fourth foundation of mindfulness. In the fourth foundation, we bring the awareness of body, feelings, and mind states cultivated in the first three foundations to investigate important qualities of present moment experience. Investigating the six senses deepens our inquiry into how suffering arises through our relationship to embodied life, and how equanimity can grow in its place.
The Six Sense Bases (indriya or āyatana)
The eye & seeing (cakkhu)
The ear & hearing (sota)
The nose & smelling (ghāna)
The tongue & tasting (jivhā)
The body & sensing (kāya)
The heart/mind & cognizing (mana)
In some versions, the consciousness (viññāṇa) that arises with each kind of sensory contact is included to form a list sometimes called the “eighteen elements” (MN 115). While we may be familiar with the common list of five physical senses, the Buddhist system is distinct in adding the “mind” as a sensing organ. The Pāli term mana refers to the cognitive faculty that produces thoughts and feelings.
In contrast to European conceptions of the heart and mind being separate centers for processing emotion and thought, mana (like citta—another term used for the cognitive faculty), includes both emotional and mental processes. So we sense thoughts and feelings rather than having or doing them. Including mind in the list of senses, rather than as the seat of our sense of self, allows for an easier disidentification with thought and emotion and enables a letting go of clinging to our stories and feelings.
The Senses & Suffering
In the classic formulation of the first Noble Truth (SN 56.11), the Buddha defines suffering, or dissatisfaction (dukkha), as clinging to the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Another version of the same principle uses the six sense fields instead of the aggregates as a way of talking about the range of experiences we cling to (SN 56.14). The Buddha reported that before his awakening he specifically reflected on the “gratification, danger, and escape” in regards to the six sense bases as part of his inquiry into grasping and letting go (SN 35.13 and SN 35.14). This reflection feels into the pleasure connected with sensory experience (“gratification”), the dukkha that can so easily come with that pleasure (“danger”), and the liberation possible through renunciation and letting go (“escape”).
The investigation of pleasure and grasping is also the heart of how the six senses are used in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), which instructs us not just to be mindful of sensory experience but to reflect on the constriction, or “fetter,” that can arise in relation to anything we experience.
It’s when a mendicant understands the eye, sights, and the fetter that arises dependent on both of these. [...and likewise for each of the six senses…] They understand how the fetter that has not arisen comes to arise; how the arisen fetter comes to be abandoned; and how the abandoned fetter comes to not rise again in the future. (MN 10)
Having understood how the fetter arises, we are instructed to practice in a way that prevents it from arising in the future. The fetter is clinging, so the practice becomes one of letting go and preventing unhealthy reactivity in the future.
In The Great Discourse on the Six Sense Fields (MN 149), the Buddha used an analysis of how we cling to the sense fields as the basis for a detailed teaching on the path to liberation.
Mendicants, when you don’t truly know and see the eye, sights, eye consciousness, eye contact, and what is felt as pleasant, painful, or neutral that arises conditioned by eye contact, you’re aroused by these things.
Someone who lives aroused like this—fettered, confused, concentrating on gratification—accumulates the five grasping aggregates for themselves in the future. And their craving—which leads to future lives, mixed up with relishing and greed, taking pleasure wherever it lands—grows. Their physical and mental stress, torment, and fever grow. And they experience physical and mental suffering. (MN 149)
The teaching connects letting go of craving to living happily, with “physical and mental pleasure,” and to fully developing the Eightfold Path. Deep letting go requires no longer being captivated by sensory experiences, called “disenchantment” (nibbidā) or “dispassion” (virāga). These states are not nihilistic or rejecting of the world, though they are phrased in the negative. They point to the deep balance and joy in the heart that come when equanimity and peace are strong and unshakeable.
When a bhikkhu is completely disenchanted with six things, completely dispassionate toward them, completely liberated from them, completely sees their delimitations, and completely breaks through their meaning, in this very life he makes an end of suffering. What six things? The six internal sense bases. (AN 10.27)
The Senses & Dependent Origination
In addition to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, one of the central places the list of the six sense bases is used is in the sequence known as Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) (SN 12.1 and SN 12.2). Dependent Origination (DO) is a map that details how suffering comes about through clinging to sensory experiences. In twelve sequential steps, DO shows how ignorance (avijjā) conditions the whole scope of our experience, and it demonstrates the solidification of the sense of self (and future rebirth) that comes from not understanding and interrupting the process.
At the heart of Dependent Origination is a sequence of steps that analyze sensory experience. Each step is a necessary condition for the next step to arise. The six sense bases (saḷāyatana) is step five in the twelve-step process, and is the necessary condition for sensory contact, since without sense organs and faculties, we would not be able to make contact with the world. Contact (phassa) is followed by feeling tone or affect (vedanā), which is when the sense of things as being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral arises. Based on vedanā, craving (taṇhā) and then clinging (upādāna) arise. And based on clinging, the sense of self solidifies (bhava, becoming), and the deep suffering of further rebirth (jāti) is inevitable.
The way to interrupt this relentless process lies between steps seven (vedanā, feeling tone) and eight (taṇhā, grasping). With mindfulness, we practice feeling the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling tone in sensory experiences, and instead of instinctively grasping at them, we rest in loving awareness and equanimity. Without grasping, the rest of the sequence cannot proceed, and the path turns toward disenchantment and peace. The sense bases are the foundation of this entire process. How we react to sensory, or sensual, life determines whether we move through the world tormented by desire, fear, and dissatisfaction, or find a deep refuge in peace of mind and the untroubled heart.
Even though the list of the senses is used in the discourses as part of teachings on letting go, dispassion, and renunciation, they are also the heart of embodied life in all its aspects. The wholesome pleasures of meditation, good friendship, communion with the natural world, and the aesthetic joys of human culture—music, dancing, and many forms of art and ritual—are all sensory phenomena. It is important to hold the austere teachings on letting go and disenchantment with sensory contact in wise perspective around our own intentions and purposes in Dharma practice.
One of the great mysteries of the Dharma is how deeply the teachings recognize the danger in clinging to experiences that are always going to be impermanent and unable to produce lasting satisfaction, while at the same time praising states of deeply embodied pleasure like those experienced in meditative absorption (jhāna) and the joys of wise friendship and community. The “middle way” is defined as being between sensual indulgence and bodily mortification (SN 56.11), so it not only rejects clinging, it also rejects the hostility to embodiment and pleasure that can come when teachings on disenchantment are taken too far.
In and of themselves, the senses are not dangerous, and are neither wholesome nor unwholesome. It is only our reactivity to them that makes them a hindrance or a support on the path. As we recognize the gratification and the danger built into sensory life, we learn to avoid the pitfalls of unconscious clinging and reactivity. We cultivate the sacred pause, and feel how pleasant and unpleasant feelings habitually control our life and choices. And we find moments of stepping aside from the whole drama, allowing pleasure to be felt and enjoyed without grasping for more, and pain to be felt and managed without contraction or grasping at lost comfort and ease. This is the escape from suffering. Embodied life, freed from the constriction of grasping, turns out to be filled with pleasure and joy, precisely to the degree that we see clearly and receive the sensual mystery of life as it comes.
Talks & Meditations on the Six Sense Bases
The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness 3: Practicing with the Six Senses and the Aggregates