Transcript: Exploring the Sense Bases

So today we’re looking at something that’s so obvious, people don’t usually look at it. It’s usually one of the early parts of the curriculum in kindergarten or first grade, or your first experience of school. They say you have five senses and that’s it. They don’t tell you how to use ’em. They don’t tell you how where things can go wrong. They just tell you you have ’em. And you’re like, yeah, that makes sense. And it does make sense. And we see this across cultures. This is something everybody can agree with. And in Buddhism, there’s one extra one that’s acknowledged, that being the mental sense.
The Buddha starts out by saying the six external sense spaces should be understood. The six internal sense spaces should be understood. The six consciousnesses should be understood. All of that is to understand the context of the word “should.” This is an option that we have.
 There’s nobody out there saying, you must understand this. This is the kind of should, like you should look both ways before crossing the street. It’s that kind of should, it’s an option, it’s a good option. The Buddha is saying if you were interested in doing things the right way, the right way is to stop and to examine these sense bases. The right way is to understand these sense bases.
In doing so, we understand what the Buddha talks about in the fire sermon, one of the three cardinal suttas where he says the sense bases are on fire. And he lists the sense bases. He says the eye is on fire, the ear is on fire, the nose is on fire. It’s not literally on fire. What is it on fire with? He says it’s on fire with greed, hatred and delusion with birth, aging and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.
He says that is what is on fire. If we check in, basically the senses are on fire with us. Yeah. The stuff that we consider to be our lives and the stuff of our lives, what we want and what we don’t want and what we’re trying to get, that’s what it’s on fire with. And when we cool those fires, we realize that the sense bases are just sense bases. They are input points for data and they are places where experiences arise.
But that they’re not us. Yeah. They’re just conduits really.
So what are the six external sense bases? We know these as the things that the sense bases pick up on. These are visible sight, audible sounds, smells, flavors, and tactile sensations. We’re going to leave the mind in its own category and we’re gonna talk about it once we get through the five physical senses. And I’ll explain why that is when we get there.
 Okay. So close your eyes for a second and I’m gonna say imagine a ball. Okay. Fair enough. So now there are some people who don’t visualize things when they’re told to visualize something, they can’t see anything. But what impression did you get of the ball? Maybe some saw a ball, maybe it was round, maybe it had a little star on it, or it was red or it was blue.
Maybe some people felt a ball, they thought about the weight of a ball, the shape of it. If they were grabbing it, maybe the first thing that came to mind was the sound of a ball bouncing off of something. Yeah. And that’s interesting. But the important thing we can look at is that when you thought of this ball, you just thought of a ball, right?
Like I sa. id, think of a ball and you didn’t see a collage of colors in the middle of which was a circle. And then you said, that’s probably a ball. You just saw a ball. Or you just heard a ball or you just felt a ball.
And the first thing to understand about the external sense bases is that they are objects.
 And this right from the beginning is our first clue that there is more going on than just a meat body moving through the world like a bacteria or a paramecium, and there’s some light over there so it moves in that direction. Or there’s a scent of food in that direction. So it moves in that direction. We are more than this.
Our senses are conduit for consciousness to arise. And it is arising to perceive objects.
This is amazing. This is the first insight, that we see objects, we hear sounds, they’re packaged things. Often the consciousness is arising in a kind of scanning mode. It’s ready for the next thing to happen. But if we really watch what happens, we see it comes into contact with an object, something it can define and perceive and conceive.
The mind can say “That is a Thing”. And it does! It creates an object. You see behind me there’s a picture frame with an image of the Buddha. And you think, “picture frame” and you see the frame. You’re not caught up by the wall behind it or the cabinet around it or the stuff under it. You just see the frame. And in that moment, that object is what is being contacted, what is being perceived, what is being felt, what is being known.
So these are the external sense bases, the objects that populate our world. And of objects, four of these are pretty obvious; sights, sounds, smells, flavors.
What’s not so obvious is the body sense. And this gets wrapped up a lot in our ideas of self. So what are the objects in the bodily sense? Well, we can form the idea of like a hand, right?
Put our hand against something and we say, “my hand is against something.” If we check in with the sense data though, we see that a tangible or a tactile feeling, it’s a bit more nebulous.
 We say, what did I really feel? Well what part of the hand was it really? What we felt is a solidity, what we felt was cohesion. Or it’s wet or it’s dry. What we felt was heat, what we felt was motion. This is a tactile sensation and it’s not going to necessarily link up with our physical body, but it’s going to be definitely the physical body related with that contact.
So this is very useful in meditation. When we start considering what objects are causing our mind to start to spin and to think about things, we can say, well what was it?
Well, there was a tingling. Well, there was heat. Well, there was a sense of weight. Well, it was the movement of the chest. Well, it was a, a, a, you know, something brushed by a hair. Yeah. And then we’re much closer to getting to the actual object that arose.
What are the internal sense spaces? And this is something that’s very interesting when we’re trying to figure out “what are we, anyway?” If you consider the eye for instance, there have been many different attempts to figure out where eye consciousness is arising. And in the Buddha’s world, they figured it was happening at or on the lens. That as soon as light was hitting the cornea, an object was being perceived. Later on they started to dissect the eye and they realized, well, the very sensitive part is in the back of the eye. The lens focuses the light and puts it on the retina. Even later on, something they could not conceive of in the Buddha’s time, because they didn’t have electrical theory, they didn’t really know much about chemistry, is that signal shows up upside down and it goes through a bunch of nerves to the brain where it’s put right side up.
So understanding the internal sense bases is knowing that consciousness, eye consciousness arises dependent on this entire thing. There is no location for the sense base. And the Buddha uses the word for sphere. I think, again, this is not canonical. You can find commentaries that say that maybe actually there, there’s a little, you know, tiny dot where consciousness arises.
But I’m saying just maybe just leave that aside.
If we really look at the experience, we realize that sometimes it is not easy to define where something is arising. And I’d even say that it’s kind of pointless to try. But we know that dependent on this structure, the eye, which is the lens, the retina, the nerves, the connection to the brain, dependent on that structure, consciousness can arise, an object can be perceived through this apparatus.
And if some part of that apparatus is damaged, we’re probably not gonna get the object. So it isn’t one point, it’s kind of all of the points, but it’s also not all of the points if the lens is damaged or, say, our eyes are closed. The light hits the outside of the eye and a little bit gets through the eyelid, the retina still starts picking up on things.
But we can’t identify any objects. So there’s still light, the organ is still working, but we’re not able to perceive an object. And so contact, the perception, of these objects is dependent on the base. And if we were to remove the eye, we would no longer be capable of perceiving an external site. The same with sounds, the same with smell, same with taste. So these sense bases are to be understood.
And now I’ve been using a word consciousness and the six kinds of consciousness are to be understood. And what is going on here? Well, as it turns out, when there is an object and this object comes in contact with the sense base through the medium, light helps us see things and air vibration through space helps us hear things; saliva or liquid helps us taste things.
When the organ meets the object, then there is the possibility for what we call consciousness.
We cognize that there is an object there. Once consciousness arises, a bunch of things play out. You’re gonna have perception. You can figure out what this object is based on what you know about it. You think, that chemical usually arises when I’m eating something salty. That is a salty flavor. Yeah. And you decide whether or not you like that. If you’re having soup, then that might be a pleasant association. You’re like, oh, it’s good. Salty soup. If you’re eating ice cream, whoa! Somebody put in too much salt that when they put it should have put in sugar.
So it’s kind of dependent on how we perceive it as the feeling arises and this consciousness, when we start looking at it again, you can’t find a location of it. And that’s great because consciousness is a mental thing anyway. But you know, it’s dependent on the sense base when it arises.
It is not that we are saying a person is looking through the sense base into the world and seeing this, but the entire structure of our mind is arising at that moment in that place.
The consciousness, the perception, the feeling is arising based on that sense base. So there isn’t a mind external to that which is perceiving that object.
Our mind as we perceive it, the feeling, the experience, the thought, the event is at that sense base.
Why I’ve been leaving the mental sense out is because the mind is kind of particular. And in meditation what we’ll find in the sense base is… eventually once we really really settle, they kind of go quiet. They go quiet because we stop doing something in particular. And something that the mind is able to do is the mind is able to think in ideas.
And ideas actually can have a dhamma.
Thought can have any of the other senses attributed to it. It can use any of the other objects and whichever one the mind attends to will be the feature that it sees. So if it’s thinking of a visual object, then it will see the visual object as a mental object. But the same object, the mind can be like, “well that’s, that’s round.”
So it bounces in some boom boom bo and it hears its thinking in a, a sound. Right.
 And this is what the mind is capable of doing, is it’s able to bridge the gap in our senses. They arise based on contact and then they cease. This is necessary so that the next moment of contact can arise. We can see that thing moving through space. So we can hear that that melody play out. It doesn’t happen unless we let go.
Unless the old consciousness ceases. The mind jumps in from time to time and it’s filling the gaps. It sees something and then it jumps in with an idea of what that would sound like. And then it jumps back to looking for the thing and then it jumps in and says, well that probably tastes like this.
 I mean, look at a strawberry and try to stop yourself from tasting it.
There will be your mind imagining what that tastes like, what that smells like. When you probably can’t taste it, you probably can’t smell it. It’s probably nowhere near those scent organs. What’s happening is that our mind is always working to try to create a narrative to try to put all of these things together. And the mind is capable of having very complex objects as a sense base.
I’s easy for us to miss the fact that it’s doing this and the Buddha calls this a sort of magic trick. So meditation, understanding, consciousness is understanding that it’s just a blip. If you have a consciousness of seeing an object, then that is just one moment. And that sight can be pleasant, can be unpleasant, can bring up associations.
But all of that happens in just a moment. And then anything that comes from that, thinking about that, dwelling on that, pondering on that happens after within the mental sphere, it’s not happening within the visual sphere. Because the visual sphere is passive. It’s only able to receive, to perceive. It is dependent on that fleshy part.
The Buddha talks about 18 preoccupations should be known and already we’re like, wait, I was almost able to cover this when it was six. What is 18? Well, 18 is just saying that when an object is, consciousness arises based on one of these contacts, one of these objects hitting the sense organ, there might be one of three kinds of feelings. A pleasant feeling, a neutral feeling, an unpleasant feeling.
One of these three might arise. And we see this, we know this, we know this happens, but what happens when we like that or we dislike that or we just don’t care about that. What happens when there’s a persistence when when the mind starts to run with that? Well, what happens is we’re no longer seeing the object. We’re no longer hearing the object. We’re no longer smelling that object. Because that could only last for just a moment, just a single consciousness.
What happens is that the mind has created its own impression of that object and is working with that. And that it’s not until we let go of that preoccupation, that sort of obsessing and staying in the area of our idea of that object, that we can actually let go of that consciousness. Let go of that. And then a new consciousness can arise at the eye to actually see where the object has gone.
So if we get used to the reality of the visual world, that we necessarily have to let go of it because it is always moving. And any moment where we stick or get stuck or don’t let it flow or try to try to understand, try to contemplate, try to hold onto it, we’re just grasping at echoes. We’re grasping at afterimages, like the afterimages that get burned onto the retina if we stare at something too long.
That’s all we’re doing. And this is actually really good for us to understand, to know. It’s fortunate, in the great cosmology, because having sense bases, it’s considered kind of degraded. We have such powerful minds, a mind that can create any object that it wants. Why are we wallowing in the mud in these filthy gross meat bodies scrounging around trying to get sensual objects?
The Buddha doesn’t say just get out, work hard, get reborn in the heavens and then do the practice as this helps us understand not self.
When we really look at it, we have to let go of our idea of self in order to even use these sense bases. When we see the sense bases are non localized, there’s no center to them, that they are all about receiving information, then any notion that we have that we are controlling them is false.
Any notion we have that they are located somewhere is false. Any notion that we have that they are a thing in space is false.
And so think about this. Can can you see a ball? Yeah. Can you see your own eyeball? Can you see the visual sense base? Give it a try. Is there an eyeball in space that is receiving the information? No.
And this is one of these great aha moments. You’re like, wait, I’ve been working on the assumption that there is an eye, that there is a place that, you know, I’m pointing it at things so that I can see I’ve been working on this, this idea my whole life. It’s pretty practical. And yet when we really stop and we look at the information is when it’s that consciousness, that eye consciousness arises.
What is arising is eye consciousness.
It’s not an eye floating in space that is receiving something and, and then doing some kind of work.
It is a consciousness arising based on that contact. And then it’s ceasing, because was dependent on the eye, but it was not the eye itself. It was dependent on the object, but it was not the object itself. And therefore there is no self. Therefore that’s all that is really happening is the consciousness.
And since it ceases, how could it possibly be us? Yeah. And since a new one is arising at a different sense base or in the mind, there’s no persistence there. There’s no continuity. Since there’s no continuity, there’s no consciousness that’s going from place to place. There’s no being, there’s no sentient mind that’s going from place to place. Instead there’s just this data arising.
So letting go of our preoccupation allows something quite magical to happen. And at this point you should be saying, okay, this is great, this is intellectually stimulating, but what do I do with this? Yeah. Well, what we do is we let go of the preoccupations. What we do is we come to know the arising of the consciousnesses.
We come to know the objects, we come to know the sense base. We come to accept that this is all there is. When we do this, we actually really experience it. When we actually really experience it, what will stop happening is all of the mental juggling. We won’t be going eye mind, eye, ear, eye mind, eye body, eye body…. the mind is not capable of moving because it has no location.
But we sure feel like we’re moving, don’t we?
We sure feel like we’re being, you know, bounced around by all of these sense impressions. All that’s happening is that the mind is juggling a bunch of different data and it’s creating a bunch of objects.
If we slow this process down and we start just staying with an experience and allowing consciousness to rise consistently at one of the sense bases rather than trying to put them all together, then what we’ll find is we get a very solid, sturdy impression of whatever object we’re experiencing.
This can be done in many different ways. We could do like looking at an object. People are familiar with kasina practice where they look at a physical object. The way this is supposed to develop is that you have to kind of clean all of the associations off of the visual base, off of the eye base so that you can keep looking at the object.
And you keep looking at the object until you realize you’re actually starting to see the object. You’re not seeing what you think the object is. You’re seeing the object. And what is happening is because the mind is not jumping around and trying to hear the object and taste the object. And it’s actually able to just be with that visual impression for a while and you’ll find that this becomes quite beautiful. So the reason for this is, the Buddha says this is a particular kind of feeling, you know, it’s the kind of feeling that accompanies mindfulness.
And this is called the sign of the beautiful. We’ll say that the object by virtue of being well-known, becomes quite vivid, quite striking. What will happen when we allow this to happen is that the mind will be able to pick up that very tangible, striking object and instead of bouncing around, instead of trying to create an idea of this object by fleshing it out with multiple senses, it will stay with that very vivid impression.
And even if you close your eyes, even if you stop doing the mantra, even if you stop feeling the breath, that impression, that very vivid impression can persist as a mental object. And so eventually the mind is able to rise out of even referencing the senses and just work with a clear mental object. It’s very hard for us to do this just on a whim. It’s very hard for us to just work and churn and create a mental object. It is a lot easier to take an object that we know and to develop an association with it, develop a concrete understanding of it.
And then using that, getting a strong impression of that, use that as a mental object. And it’s sort of like, if we ever have a complex problem, we draw it out. Right? The central world is giving us the opportunity to do this.
We have eyes and ears and a nose and a tongue and a body. So it’s almost like we’re taking little models and we’re saying, okay, I know killing is wrong, but how is killing wrong? And we could try to think of it intellectually, but it’s just an idea. And then we think of one little person killing another little person and then they’re dead. And in the actual world this makes a lot of sense. Once they’re dead, they don’t get back up again. And this other little person goes on. But they’re feeling a lot of regret and remorse and they’re trying to get away from the authorities. And just because we have a physical model, it makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? Yeah. It’s nice and grounded in reality. And we’d think, oh yeah, killing is bad. Killing is a bad thing. So in dependence on objects, in dependence on tangible things, we are able to build a stronger idea.
We do this in metta practice. We start out by thinking of somebody we really like and we’re actually thinking of them, our impression of them, it’s not them, this is our idea of them, but based on getting a strong sense of oh, that’s a really good person. I really like that person. That person’s very friendly, that person’s very beneficial. We begin to feel all the emotions as if we are across from them. And we are forming a strong mental image, a strong mental dhamma, as an object that we can then keep going.
 We don’t have to keep thinking about that person and keep remembering that person. We’ve got suddenly a mental object and then we can even shift the mental object to be the friendliness itself, the reaction that we’re feeling itself. And then, you know, loving kindness becomes its own object.
Or in unattractiveness meditation. Or the perception of impermanence. This is this process we’re doing. We start with the central thing, but really getting down to “what is the thing that we’re experiencing?” And then building a familiarity with this as a way to step out of it.
We are not our senses, but since we’ve got ’em, we might as well use ’em.
And this is what we can explore today if you want (or don’t). But I think that probably, because I’ve thrown the idea out there, it might arise sometime today, while you’re meditating and when it does, let it preoccupation is to be let go. Imagine that the sensors are just happening. Yeah. The senses don’t have a location and you just really allow the object to be what the object is. Whether it’s a tingling, whether it’s a sound, whether it’s a sight, whatever.
Yeah. And then let it go. Let it be just that moment in time and then receive the next one. And if you give this a try, you might find some interesting results. I can’t promise you’ll get particular results. Because we all have different sense bases. We’re all located in different places. We’re all gonna be attending to different objects. But I can say that at the very least, this is how they work.
And knowing that, what can we learn? So I’m making up for what your kindergarten teachers failed to fail to fully flesh out. They say you have these sense bases, but they don’t really tell you how they’re supposed to make you a better person or how that’s supposed to bring you peace, or things to watch out for. Now that you’ve got that extra information, you can, it’s up to you.
It’s totally up to you. Where where are you in time and space? What is arising and what is your relationship to it? Can you let it settle? Can you let the fires go out? And if so, I guarantee you will still have experiences. Yeah. You will still be you.
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