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

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  1. Dana Nourie on June 4, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Very well described, Linda! When I first read about the sense bases, it also spoke in terms of cessation. This was confusing to me, as it sounded like, if your senses don’t arise, then the the suffering will cease. Well that sounded like he was saying, you have to stop the senses from arising. Impossible unless you are unconscious or dead!

    It took me some time, but I begin to understand it was not the senses themselves, but the information we receive through them that caused craving. Well, that craving is often clear enough, and I know if I don’t see or smell certain foods I don’t crave them. Yet, I knew this was still not what was being pointed out. I can’t stop the world from exposing me to sights, sounds, etc. To some degree I can keep them out of my grasp, but it seemed absurd to expect me to prevent seeing all things that may trigger craving.

    I was still missing the point. What you describe here, in terms of the formation of identity, that sense of self, and our natural tendency to want to validate ourselves makes heaps of sense. I want to reread this several more times as it is clicking a few things into place for me, then I can observe more closely and deeply within my “self and the bases”.

    Thank you for this wonderful series!

  2. Linda on June 4, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I’m glad you’re finding it useful, Dana. This is why I have been so excited about finding the underlying structure and wanting to share it: because it has helped me in my practice. With the original context restoring the overall logic, the whole thing flows, and all the pieces fit without any jiggling and justifications needed — it’s all stuff we can see for ourselves, right here, right now, just like the Buddha kept telling us it was. I hope you’ll also find, as I have, that it makes reading the suttas make a *whole* lot more sense, too.

  3. Dana Nourie on June 5, 2012 at 8:12 am

    I have no doubt this will help in the reading of the suttas. My literal mind can get so tangled, it’s often hard for me to see where metaphor is being used, or a story that was intended as myth used as an example, and sometimes, the simplicity of it. I’m so used to modern day writing. Yet, I had suspicions, and in my own practice I could see the processes arising that were leading me in a direction which you’ve been describing. So now my understanding falling nicely into place for me. I had a disconnect between my experience and my misunderstanding of the suttas.

    What I really appreciate too, Linda, and the to the point style of your writing in the articles. Very well done!

  4. Linda on June 5, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    When I first began studying Buddhism — back in the mid-80s — what I found were lots of books that made a sort of coherent sense about the *system* of Buddhism (I could sort of see how the pieces fit together) but they all entirely lacked anything that would anchor them to real-world experience. This has always been my problem with “philosophy” — it’s so up there “in your head” and I rarely see how to apply it to my life. I suppose dry philosophy is supposed to have a “trickle down effect” and it probably does, but for me (I love a good hardware store) there is nothing quite like having actual tools in my hands and good instructions about how to use them. This is why I am trying to give the occasional example.

  5. […] Six Senses (salayatana): Sure, we have six senses. This is news? […]

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