The Vipassana Retreat
12. The Six Sense-spheres
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 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.
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
Orientation to a Sense-door
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."
’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;
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
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?
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.