A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #5 Use of the Six Senses

When Sariputta describes step #5 (from MN 9, as translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi), we are clearly in the field:

 There are these six bases: the eye-base, the ear-base, the nose-base, the tongue-base, the body-base, the mind-base….

This tells us nothing about how it relates to the process of dependent origination, it only tells us where to look — in what field this step will grow. We can be certain that we are looking at the senses, but what exactly are we looking for? With my amazing supernormal powers I can see that “contact” is coming up next, so this isn’t talking about the senses in the process of being fed by their particular objects, instead it is still-hungry senses. Driven by our innate desire to figure out who we are and how we relate to the world — what’s for us, and what’s against us — to categorize and classify everything in terms of our self, and to shore up our already developed sense of self with more and more data, this is our senses reaching out to look for that information.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to sit in meditation and manage to get settled enough to have discursive thought go quiet, reaching one of those wonderful moments of peace and equanimity, you might also have encountered the arising of a little bubble of pressure in your mind, as if a thought is trying to take form, but formless still, so you have no idea what it will be. In the silence of the moment, your senses may be reaching for something to feed awareness, because it’s hungry and not being fed images of itself. That would describe this step in action: the senses — driven by awareness and the need to find evidence that can be sorted into categories that prove we are who we think we are — are trying to find something to settle on to satisfy that drive.

These first five steps have been describing the situation as it is given to us by nature. These are the initial conditions that are there as an underlying tendency from the very first, but that don’t develop into anything active until a little later in life. The Buddha talks about this underlying tendency when he describes the reason why an infant isn’t a liberated being:

For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘identity,’ so how could identity view arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to identity view lies within him. — MN 64 translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi

That underlying tendency doesn’t get watered and grow until a bit later in life. In one of the most detailed suttas on dependent arising, MN 38, the Buddha describes conception, gestation, birth, infancy and toddlerhood, through a childhood of playing with toys. It is just at this point that the awareness of the senses are introduced, and shortly after that:

…he is infatuated with pleasing forms, and gets upset over unpleasing forms…. he relishes any feeling he feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — welcomes it, & remains fastened to it. As he relishes that feeling, welcomes it, & remains fastened to it, delight arises. Now, any delight in feeling is clinging/sustenance. From his clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.

So it is somewhere past the point in life when one is doing somersaults and playing with sticks that the underlying tendency to “identity view” (the problematic sense that we have a lasting self), nourished by the way we like and dislike what we experience, becomes food (“sustenance”) for the birth of something.

The next section of links describes the events that start taking place at that point in life, that act to feed that growing sense of self.

We end this overview section with a link that tells us that all that came before is now driving the senses to look for confirmation-of-self, and with the next step we’ll find the senses having succeeded — that is the essence of “contact” — it is a specific instance of contact between the senses and the world that satisfies all the conditions that came before it.

Go To: Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising