The Vipassana Retreat

12. The Six Sense-spheres

The teaching of the sense-spheres is to be found in the Contemplation of Mind (dhammanupassana) in the text we are following: the Satipatthana Sutta, which by now is familiar to you as the Four Establishments of Mindfulness.

After each section in the text in the Satipathana Sutta, you will find this passage: “In this way he abides contemplating the body as a body (or feelings, mind states and mental phenomena) internally, externally, and both internally and externally”. What does this mean? It means that the focus of one’s attention changes from the subjective (internal) to the objective (external) and by “both” is meant the understanding of the interrelationship or interdependence.

The focus of the practice so far has been mainly introspective; now the watchfulness or attentiveness can be expanded to include the external as well. That is, the attention is switched from the subjective to the objective. This is done by orientating to the sense-spheres, which are about the relationship between oneself and the outer world. Practising both internal and external satipatthanas can prevent self-absorption, and achieve a skilled balanced between introversion and extroversion.

The importance of contemplation of the sense-spheres is that it directs awareness to the six “internal” and “external” sense-spheres and the fetters (samyojana) arising in dependence on them. Although a fetter arises dependent on sense and object, the attaching nature of such a fetter should not be attributed to the senses or objects themselves, but to the influence of the hankering pull of desire (tanha).

The fetters have to be taken into consideration in the practice, as a fetter is a shackle or something that causes bondage. There are ten types of fetters that need to be discarded, which are belief in a substantial and permanent self, doubt, dogmatic clinging to particular rules and rituals, sensual desire, aversion to, and craving for, immaterial existence, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance.

All our experience is limited to the senses and their objects, with the mind counted as the sixth. The five outer senses collect data only in the present but mind, the sixth, where this information is collected and processed, adds memories from the past and hopes and fears for the future as well as thoughts of various kinds relating to the present. Beyond these six bases of sense and their corresponding six objective bases, we know nothing.

Each of these sense-spheres includes both the sense organ and the sense object. Besides the five physical senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue and body) and their respective objects (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch), the mind is included as the sixth sense. Mind represents mainly the activity of thoughts, such as reasoning, memory, and reflection. Thus all perceptual processes rely to some extent on the interpretive processes of the mind, since it “makes sense” out of the other spheres.

Here are the instructions for this practice from the text: “He knows the eye, he knows forms, and he knows the fetter that arise dependent on both, and he also knows how an unarisen fetter can arise, how an arisen fetter can be removed, and how a future arising fetter can be prevented.

He knows the ear, he knows sounds, He knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and . . . He know the nose, he knows the odours, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on them both, and . . . He knows the tongue, he knows flavours, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on them both, and . . . He knows the body, he knows the tangibles, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on them both, and . . . He knows the mind, he knows mind-objects, and he knows the fetter that arises dependent on them both, and he also knows how an unarisen fetter can arise, how an arisen fetter can be removed, and how a future arising fetter can be prevented. – MI61

The task of mindfulness then, is to observe the fetter that can arise in dependence on contact between sense and object. To develop awareness and detachment in regard to these six internal and external sense-spheres is of crucial importance for the progress of insight – especially in regard to the deeply rooted ‘sense of self’ that assumes it is an independent experiencer of sense objects.

Orientation to a Sense-door

To make an orientation to a sense-door, you start by literally coming to your senses – seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. These are the five sense-doors or sense bases; the ‘sixth sense’ is ‘consciousness of something’, which is the mind-base with its eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc. You also need to be aware of the senses internally as well as externally. That is, the organs and their sense objects: nose/smell, tongue/taste, body/tactile objects, ear/sound, mind/mind-objects or consciousness.

Attentiveness or ‘presence of mind’ at one of the sense-doors during a sense impression is the way to practice. For example, most people are predominantly visual, so being attentive at the eye-door allows you to notice the effects of the contact between the eye and the visible objects and how you are relating to them.

The process is this: there is the eye (the internal base), and a visible object (the external base). With contact or a sense impression between the sense-door and external object, consciousness arises followed by feeling. The moment of consciousness ordinarily is too rapid to catch while the feeling tone can be more easily known and apprehended.

This orientation to a sense-door brings awareness of what is happening during the moment of contact or the sense impression, and with it the ability to monitor the associated feelings and consciousness that arises. When this feeling tone is apprehended, the link to liking and disliking is broken and therefore one is free at that moment from conditioned suffering.

This strategy of wise attention at a sense-door ties in with the practical implementation of the teaching of Dependent Arising (patticcasamuppada). In fact these two teachings when combined will lead to the purification of mind and the realisation of Nirvana.

The Law of Dependent Arising is a deep subject. It is the very essence of the Buddha’s Teachings. In the words of the Buddha: “He who sees Dependent Arising sees the Dharma; he who sees the Dharma sees Dependent Arising.”

There was an exchange between the Buddha and his personal attendant, Ananda, when Ananda casually remarked that he thought it was an easy thing to understand. The Buddha responded by saying, “Not so Ananda, don’t ever say such a thing. It is because people do not understand origination, that they are not able to penetrate it, that their minds are befuddled. Just as a ball of twine becomes all tangled up and knotted, just so are beings ensnared and unable to free themselves from the wheel of existence, the conditions of suffering and states of hell and ruin”.

’How to untangle the tangle?’ This is a quote from the Visuddhimagga or The Path of Purification. The untangling can be done by insighting into Dependent Arising through the practice of attentiveness at a sense-door. What we are experiencing now is from a series of events that arose because of previous conditions and is linked as a causal chain of effects, that is, cyclic existence or samsara.

It is useful for the meditator to be familiar with the twelve links in the cycle of Dependent Arising: that is, the principle of conditionality, which lies at the heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. They form the causal sequence responsible for the origination of samsaric suffering. The series of conditions can be mapped out in the abstract as follows:

With Ignorance (avijja) as a condition – Kamma formations (sankhara) arises;
With Kamma formations (sankhara) as a condition – Consciousness (vinnana) arises;
With Consciousness (vinnana) as a condition – Mentality-materiality (nama-rupa) arises;
With Mentality-materiality (nama-rupa) as a condition – Six-fold sense-base (salayatana) arises;
With the Six-fold sense-base (salayatana) as a condition – Contact (phassa) arises;
With Contact (phassa) as a condition – Feeling (vedana) arises;
With Feeling (vedana) as a condition – Craving (tanha) arises;
With Craving (tanha) as a condition – Attachment (upadana) arises;
With Attachment (upadana) as a condition – Existence (bhava) arises;
With Existence (bhava) as a condition – Birth (jati) arises;
With Birth (jati) as a condition – Suffering (dukkha) arises.

As the Vipassana meditator experiences the series of causal events, they can be intercepted at the linkage between contact and feeling during a sense impression. The ability to do this gives one the potential of being free of the conditioned cycle of suffering that most people are unknowingly trapped in.

Try an Exercise in Orientating to a Sense-door

Check! Where is your attention at this present moment? What sense impression is predominant now? Is it the eye-door attracted by some visual object, the ear-door taken by sounds, or the touch sensations of the body’s contact on the cushion or chair you’re sitting on? This moment is the time to establish the habit of being consciously present at a sense-door and notice what is happening during a sense impression.

So stop for a few minutes, choose a sense-door (most people are predominantly visual, although others can be more auditory inclined) and be attentive to what is happening there – what feeling is present, what is the quality of that feeling, is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; and particularly notice the changes. It is useful to make a habit of asking yourself checking questions during your daily routine: what sense door am I at, what is happening there, and what are the associated feelings that arise?

The Story of Bahiya

This is the enlightenment story of Bahiya, the wooden robed one, who was able to practise in this way. Bahiya was originally a merchant, who, when traveling at sea with all his merchandise, was shipwrecked and was cast ashore naked. He found some bark to cover himself and finding an old bowl on the beach, he went searching for alms-food at a nearby village. The village people were impressed by his seeming austerities and his reputation grew as an ascetic. He was tested when people offered him fine robes, but knowing that they would loose faith in him if he accepted, he refused, keeping up the deception.

Bahiya was installed in a temple and worshiped as an Arahant, so that in time he came to believe that he was actually an enlightened being. He lived impeccably and gained good concentration powers. Sitting in meditation one day, it is said that a deva was able to persuade Bahiya that he wasn’t really enlightened at all, but that he should go and see the Buddha, an Arahant who could help him.

Bahiya made the journey to where the Buddha was staying at the Savatthi monastery and found the Buddha was just about to go on the daily alms-round. So Bahiya was asked to come back at a more opportune time. But Bahiya was insistent and implored the Buddha to instruct him in the essence of the Dharma. The Buddha then responded with these brief instructions:

“Bahiya, you should train yourself in this way:

With the seen, there will be just the seen; with the heard, there will be just the heard; with the sensed there will be just the sensed; with the cognised, there will be just the cognised. When for you, Bahiya, there is merely the seen, heard, sensed, and cognised, then you will not be therein. Then you, Bahiya, will be neither here nor there nor within both – this is itself the end of suffering”.

Through this brief instruction, Bahiya was immediately enlightened – through non-clinging – thus becoming an Arahant.

Not long after the Buddha left, a cow fatally gored Bahiya. When the Buddha returned from the alms-round and heard that Bahiya was dead, he arranged for his cremation and a stupa to be built for him. When asked what the destiny of Bahiya was, the Buddha said that because he had grasped the meditation subject in the teacher’s presence, and practiced as instructed, Bahiya had attained Parinibbana – final Enlightenment.

The Buddha’s succinct instruction to Bahiya directs bare attention to whatever is seen, heard, sensed or cognised. Bare attention just registers whatever arises during a sense impression, allowing one to be present at the initial stage of the perceptual process and thereby inhibiting unwholesome associations and biased cognitions. Maintaining bare attention in this way prevents the mind evaluating and proliferating (papanca) the raw data of perception. Bahiya, as an Arahant, was no longer influenced by subjective bias, and cognized phenomena without self-reference, and thus was enlightened.