Six Sense Spheres

Pathways for Contacting and Experiencing the World


Although human beings are made up of the five aggregates, which can be further subdivided into numerous subsidiary factors, generally speaking, in everyday life, people do not directly engage with these aggregates. Many of these component factors making up human life exist and function without people’s knowledge, and even if they are aware of them, people often do not give them much thought. In respect to the body, for example, many physical organs function without the knowledge of the person involved, who often does not care to know. People may only take an interest in these functions when there arises some abnormality or impairment. This is similarly the case in regard to mental factors.

People generally leave the study and analysis of the body as the responsibility of medical scholars and biologists, and they leave the study of the mind up to Abhidhamma scholars and psychologists. For the majority of people, the importance or meaning of life centres around their everyday engagement and interaction with the world. The importance of life for most people lies in their relationship to the world.

This engagement or relationship can be divided into two parts or systems, both of which rely on specific ’doorways’ (dvāra; ’channel’) for making contact with the world:

  1. Cognition and experience of the world by way of the six sense doors (phassa-dvāra; ’doorways of sense contact’; ’sense bases’): the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. These sense doors cognize various properties and attributes of the world, namely, the six sense objects (ārammaṇa): forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, and mental objects.

  2. Behaviour and response to the world relying on the three channels of action (kamma-dvāra): the body (kāya-dvāra), speech (vacī-dvāra), and mind (mano-dvāra), resulting in physical actions (kāya-kamma), verbal actions (vacī-kamma), and mental actions (mano-kamma).

Note that in the context of active engagement in everyday life, the term dvāra (’sense doors’) in the first system is most often referred to in the scriptures by the term āyatana, which means ’sphere of cognition’ or ’path of cognition’. For this reason, in this analysis here, the term āyatana is used instead of dvāra.

In regard to the second system, the entire engagement here pertains to the fourth aggregate – the aggregate of volitional formations (saṅkhāra) – which was discussed in the previous chapter. The myriad volitional formations, which can be classified as wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral, manifest and function when they are selected, induced, and authorized by intention (cetanā) – their leader and representative – to behave or act by way of body, speech and mind, resulting in physical deeds, speech, and thoughts. {29}

In this context, volitional formations are reclassified in three ways: (1) according to the chief or representative factor (i.e. of intention); (2) according to the pathway by which they are expressed; and (3) according to the specific action performed, as shown on Figure Intention and Action.

Intention and Action image

In the previous chapter on the five aggregates, volitional formations (saṅkhāra) as the factors determining the quality and attributes of the mind have already been discussed. In chapters 4 and 5 of Buddhadhamma, covering the process of human life and human activities, a detailed explanation of volitional formations will be presented in regard to their role in shaping behaviour and responding to the external world. In this present chapter, the focus is thus restricted to the first system above, namely, the nature and proper functioning of the six sense doors.

Nature of the Six Senses

The term āyatana literally means ’link’ or ’sphere’. In this context it refers to ’cognitive link’, ’sphere of cognition’, ’source of awareness’, or ’doorway of perception’. There are six such doorways: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.1

One may then ask, ’To what are these senses linked?’ The answer is that they are linked to the world, to the external environment. Yet the world only reveals limited parts or aspects of itself to human beings, depending on people’s faculties or instruments of cognition, that is, depending on the six senses mentioned above. For this reason, each one of the six senses is paired with a specific ’object of awareness’ in the external world. {30}

These objects of awareness are also referred to by the term āyatana, because they too act as a cognitive link or as a source of awareness. Yet, as opposed to the six internal senses (internal āyatana) just mentioned, these objects exist in the external world (external āyatana).

Generally speaking, these six external sense objects – visual forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, and mental objects – are referred to by the term ārammaṇa, which literally means ’something that detains the mind’ or ’something that holds attention’. Simply speaking, they are ’objects of attention’.

When an internal sense base (āyatana; ’sphere of cognition’) comes into contact with an (external) object of attention (ārammaṇa), an awareness specific to that individual sense sphere arises.2 When the eye comes into contact with forms, the awareness of ’seeing’ arises; when the ear contacts sounds, the awareness of ’hearing’, etc. This awareness is called ’consciousness’ (viññāṇa): the awareness of sense objects.

There are thus six kinds of consciousness, corresponding to the six sense faculties and the six sense objects: eye-consciousness (i.e. seeing); ear-consciousness (i.e. hearing); nose-consciousness (i.e. smelling); tongue-consciousness (i.e. tasting); body-consciousness (i.e. touching); and mind-consciousness (i.e. awareness of mental objects):

  1. Eye (cakkhu) is the sphere for cognizing form (rūpa), giving rise to seeing (cakkhu-viññāṇa).

  2. Ear (sota) is the sphere for cognizing sound (sadda), giving rise to hearing (sota-viññāṇa).

  3. Nose (ghāna) is the sphere for cognizing odours (gandha), giving rise to smelling (ghāna-viññāṇa).

  4. Tongue (jivhā) is the sphere for cognizing tastes (rasa), giving rise to tasting (jivhā-viññāṇa).

  5. Body (kāya) is the sphere for cognizing tangibles (phoṭṭhabba), giving rise to tactile awareness (kāya-viññāṇa).

  6. Mind (mano) is the sphere for cognizing mental objects (dhamma),3 giving rise to awareness of mental objects (mano-viññāṇa).

This can be expanded as:

  • 6 sense bases (internal āyatana): eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.

  • 6 sense objects (external āyatana): form (visible objects), sound (audible objects), smell (odorous objects), taste (sapid objects), touch (tangible objects), mind-objects (cognizable objects).

  • 6 kinds of consciousness: eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body- and mind-consciousness.

D. III. 243-4.

Although the arising of consciousness is dependent on the contact between a sense base and its respective sense object,4 the fact that a sense object becomes manifest to a sense base does not invariably result in consciousness. Other accompanying factors, such as receptivity, determination, and interest must also be present.5 For example, while a person is asleep, agitated, absentminded, focused on an activity, or highly concentrated, various visual forms and sounds within range of potential awareness are neither seen nor heard. {31} Similarly, when one is focused on writing a letter or a book, one may not be aware of the contact between one’s body and the chair or between one’s fingers and the pen. In such cases, when sense bases and sense objects are in contact, but without the arising of consciousness, ’cognition’ is not yet said to have occurred.

Cognition arises when all three factors are present: a sense base (āyatana), a sense object (ārammaṇa), and consciousness (viññāṇa). The technical term in Pali for the union of these three factors is phassa (alternatively, samphassa). Although this term literally means ’contact’, in Buddhism it refers specifically to the coming together or convergence of these three factors. In this context phassa may be translated as ’cognition’. This contact or cognition is divided into six kinds, according to the specific sense sphere involved, i.e.: eye-contact (cakkhu-samphassa), ear-contact (sota-samphassa), nose-contact (ghāna-samphassa), tongue-contact (jivhā-samphassa), body-contact (kāya-samphassa), and mind-contact (mano-samphassa).

This contact is a vital stage in the wider cognitive process. Once contact with an object has occurred, other mental and physical dynamics follow in its wake. To begin with, there is a feeling (vedanā) in response to that object, followed by recognition, associated thinking, and various actions of body, speech, and mind.

The feelings or sensations (vedanā) arising immediately after contact with an object are of special interest in this analysis of people’s interaction with the world. The term vedanā refers to sense experience, to experiencing the ’flavour’ of sense impressions. These sensations are either pleasurable, painful, or neutral.

If classified according to the pathways of cognition, there are six kinds of feeling, corresponding to the six sense bases: feelings arising from eye-contact, feelings arising from ear-contact, etc.6 If classified according to the quality of feeling, however, there are three kinds:

  1. Sukha: pleasurable, easeful, comfortable, agreeable.

  2. Dukkha: painful, uncomfortable.

  3. Adukkhamasukha (also referred to as upekkha):7 neutral; neither pleasant nor painful.

This latter division is sometimes expanded into five kinds of feeling:

  1. Sukha: physical pleasure.

  2. Dukkha: physical pain.

  3. Somanassa: mental pleasure; joy.

  4. Domanassa: mental pain; sorrow.

  5. Upekkhā: neutral feeling; neither pleasure nor pain. {32}

The cognitive process up to this point can be outlined as follows:

The Cognitive Process (Simple Form) image

The objects of awareness (ārammaṇa) are equivalent to those aspects of the world apparent to human beings by way of the sense bases (āyatana). The awareness of these objects is necessary for people to engage with the world and to survive.

Feeling (vedanā) is an essential factor in this process, indicating to people both what is dangerous and should be avoided, and what is supportive and should be sought out. Feeling thus promotes a comprehensive understanding of things.

For unawakened people, however, the role of feeling does not end here. Feeling is not merely one factor in the cognitive process which enhances knowledge and enables them to live a virtuous life. For them, feeling also implies that the world provides them with some form of compensation or reward for engaging with it. This reward is the pleasure and delight (referred to as sukha-vedanā) derived from sense objects.

If people seize onto feeling in this manner, they depart from the natural cognitive process and provide another dynamic the opportunity to take over. Feeling becomes a principal agent giving rise to subsequent factors within this new dynamic. The natural cognitive process functions in conjunction with this new dynamic, but it is distorted by its force and deviates from the truth.

This new dynamic unfolds very easily. Basically, if contact with a sense object provides pleasure (sukha-vedanā), a desire (taṇhā) for that object arises. This desire leads to attachment and latent clinging (upādāna). One is unable to lay down the object, even though in truth it is impossible to appropriate it, since it has already passed one by and vanished. At this stage, one is mentally preoccupied, creating various ideas and conceptions on how one may possess the pleasurable object, and planning how to obtain it. Finally, one performs various physical and verbal actions in order to reach one’s desired goal and to access the pleasurable feelings.

Conversely, if contact with a sense object leads to painful or uncomfortable sensations (dukkha-vedanā), one is discontent and annoyed. One desires to escape from or to eliminate the object (= taṇhā). One is preoccupied and fixated on that object (= upādāna) in a negative sense, predisposed towards aversion, fear, and avoidance. One reacts further by yearning for and obsessing over pleasurable feelings, pursuing those things one believes will provide pleasure.

This new dynamic produces a complex and desperate cycle of joy and sorrow, which is concocted by human beings themselves and which spins around repeatedly, beginning with this link of feeling (vedanā). This is one interpretation of the ’cycle of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa). People get caught in this whirlpool, and are unable to reach superior states of mind, which are available and attainable as a human being.

The link in the cognitive process following on from contact (phassa) is thus highly significant. One may say that this is the critical or turning point in the process. Feeling (vedanā) plays a crucial role at this stage. The subsequent factors in the cognitive process depend on the kind of role that feeling plays at this point. Here, there are a couple of matters to consider: {33}

First, the link following on from contact is a critical juncture, which acts as the fork in the road between a pure cognitive process and the so-called ’round of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa).

Within a pure cognitive process, feeling is simply a minor factor, helping to bring about correct and accurate knowledge.

Within the ’round of rebirth’, however, feeling is a predominant factor, dictating the entire process. It is valid to say that feeling (vedanā) shapes all of unawakened peoples’s thoughts and actions – people’s lives are determined by feeling. Within this process, people do not experience sense impressions merely to learn about the world and to engage with it in a healthy way, but they also begin to view the world as something to be consumed.

Technically speaking, within a pure cognitive process, the link of feeling (vedanā) is removed or considered inconsequential. Here, cognition is completed with contact (phassa). The following stage is referred to as the process of knowing and seeing (ñāṇa-dassana), or the process of ’turning away’ (vivaṭṭa), which is the opposite to the ’round of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa).8

Second, the link following on from contact is a critical juncture in terms of ethical conduct. It is the decisive turning point between good and evil, between wholesome and unwholesome, and between liberation and spinning around in the cycle of rebirth.

At this point we should return to the subject of the sense bases (āyatana), because all of the cognitive factors so far discussed rely on and begin with the sense bases. These sense bases thus also play a vital role in the cognitive process. For example, they are the source of feeling (vedanā) or the channels enabling the arising of feeling. Human beings aim for and desire feeling, and the sense bases make it possible to experience feeling.

In sum, the sense bases serve human beings in two ways:

  1. They are the pathways for experiencing the world; they are the locus where aspects of the world are submitted to human beings. They are the instruments for communication, providing people with raw data for understanding. They are thus essential for helping people engage successfully with the world, to live well, and to survive.

  2. They are the channels for ’consuming’ the world; they are the doorways that people open in order to experience the sweetness and pleasures of the world and to seek amusement, by seeing sights, hearing sounds, smelling fragrances, tasting flavours, touching tangibles, and fantasizing over agreeable thoughts.

These two functions are connected. The first is the principal or basic function, which is necessary. The second function is secondary; one can say that it is ’extra’ or ’excessive’. {34}

In both cases, the sense bases operate in the same way. The difference lies in the factor of intention, whether people aim for knowledge or whether they aim for sensation (vedanā).

For unawakened beings, the importance of the sense bases tends to be centred on the second function, of consuming sense impressions. The first function then becomes simply an accessory or accomplice in fulfilling the second. In other words, cognition acts as a servant for consuming the world or for propelling the cycle of rebirth. Ordinarily, people use their senses to gather only that specific knowledge that helps them to obtain and experience delicious and delightful sense objects. They are generally not interested in securing knowledge beyond this function.

Moreover, the physical, verbal, and mental behaviour of unawakened beings is also performed out of service to the cycle of rebirth. That is, people tend to act, speak, and think in order to seek and obtain pleasurable sense impressions.

The more dimwitted people are, the greater is their entanglement with this second function, to the point that people’s entire lives revolve around the six sense bases.

Although the six sense bases are only one part of the five aggregates and do not comprise the entirety of human life (as the five aggregates do),9 they play a vital role for people and are highly influential in directing people’s lives. One can say that life as ordinary people know it is defined by their engagement with the world by way of the six senses. The six senses give meaning to people’s lives. If the six senses do not function properly, life becomes meaningless – the world ends.

The following passage from the Pali Canon provides a concise yet complete description of this process, and helps to integrate the explanations of the five aggregates (from the previous chapter) with the subject here of the six senses:

Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates (papañca) over. With what one has mentally proliferated over as the source, diverse and complex perceptions (papañca-saññā-saṅkhā) beset a person with respect to past, future, and present forms cognizable through the eye.

(The same is true for the remaining five pairs of sense bases/sense objects.) {35}

M. I. 111-12.

This process can be illustrated in this way:

The Cognitive Process image

With the arising of diverse and complex perceptions (papañca-saññā), there is an increase in elaborate and embellished thinking, giving rise to such defilements as lust, aversion, possessiveness, and jealously.10

Nota Bene

  1. The term papañca refers to an engagement and entanglement with specific sense objects; it also refers to proliferative thinking driven by the force of craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), and wrong view (diṭṭhi), or thinking that compensates these three mental impurities. Here, a person conceives of things in terms of ’me’ and ’mine’, building a sense of self-identity or conceiving of things in line with personal opinions. These thoughts appear in myriad and elaborate ways, leading to various complex perceptions (papañca-saññā) that are associated with these mental proliferations.

  2. There are two stages of perception (saññā): the first stage is initial perception, which perceives those objects that arise naturally on their own. The second stage – papañca-saññā – is perception based on mental formations (saṅkhāra), which fabricate myriad and elaborate images or concepts in relation to sense objects, as mentioned above.

  3. The entire cognitive process can be divided into two parts:

    1. The first part, from the internal sense bases to feeling, comprises a pure cognitive process; all of the inherent factors arise according to natural causes and conditions. At this stage there is no ’being’, ’person’, or ’self’ involved.

    2. The latter part, from feeling (vedanā) onwards, comprises the process of consuming the world or the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa). (In fact, feeling – vedanā – can also constitute the initial stage of the process of turning away (vivaṭṭa), but here the focus is on the round of rebirth.) In this latter process, there are not only natural causes and conditions at work, but there now arises a ’person’ or ’being’. A dualistic relationship is established between a ’consumer’ and the ’consumed’, between a ’thinker’ and ’conceptualized ideas’.

  4. The process of consuming the world illustrated above is only one of several ways to depict this process. It has been selected here because it is concise and it corresponds to the subjects presently being explained, i.e. the five aggregates and the six sense bases. Another description of the round of rebirth is the detailed teaching of Dependent Origination, which is a comprehensive model.

  5. Strictly speaking, the factors of consciousness (viññāṇa), contact (phassa), feeling (vedanā), and perception (saññā) are classified as ’conascent factors’ (sahajāta-dhammā): they arise simultaneously. The linear presentation above is provided for the sake of simplicity. {36}

The cognitive process can be divided into two parts, and the latter part itself can be further divided into either the ’round of rebirth’ (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa) or the ’process of turning away’ (vivaṭṭa), as illustrated on Figure Rounds of Rebirth or Turning Away.

Rounds of Rebirth or Turning Away image

Another term used to refer to the six internal sense bases (āyatana) or sense doors (dvāra) is indriya, which translates as ’faculty’ or ’governing faculty’. This term refers to the predominant or principal agent in a specific action. The eye, for example, is the principal agent in cognizing forms, and the ear is the principal agent in cognizing sounds. The six faculties are: the eye-faculty (cakkhundriya), the ear-faculty (sotindriya), the nose-faculty (ghānindriya), the tongue-faculty (jivhindriya), the body-faculty (kāyindriya), and the mind-faculty (manindriya).

The term indriya is generally used when referring to the active engagement of the sense bases, to their operation in everyday life, and in the context of virtuous conduct, for example: ’restraint of the eye-faculty’. The term āyatana, on the other hand, is generally used when referring to specific factors within a causal process (e.g.: ’dependent on the eye and visual forms, eye-consciousness arises’), and also when referring to characteristics of the senses (e.g.: ’the eye is impermanent’).

Another term frequently used for the sense bases when explaining specific factors within a causal process is phassāyatana, which translates as the ’source of contact’ or the ’origin of contact’.

Alternative terms referring to the external āyatana – the sense objects (ārammaṇa) – include gocara (’resort’, ’place for gaining sustenance’) and visaya (’bond’, ’attachment’, ’sphere of engagement’).

Another very important term, used only in reference to the first five sense objects, which are highly influential in the process of consuming the world or in the round of rebirth, is kāma-guṇa, translated as: ’cords of sensual pleasure’, ’strands of sensual pleasure’, ’alluring and enticing features’, ’delicious (or ’positive’) aspects of sensuality’. This term refers specifically to those forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects that are desirable, attractive, and pleasurable. {37}

Buddhist Epistemology

In the discussion of the cognitive process it is apt to include here a short description of different kinds of knowledge.

According to Buddha-Dhamma, there are many different ways to classify knowledge:

Types of Knowledge

This classification corresponds to the teaching on the five aggregates (khandha). Knowledge is a form of mentality (nāma-dhamma), and various aspects of knowledge are found in three of the ’aggregates of mentality’ (nāma-khandha), namely the perception aggregate (saññā-khandha), the volitional formations aggregate (saṅkhāra-khandha), and the consciousness aggregate (viññāṇa-khandha). There are three distinct kinds of knowledge classified according to the aggregates: perception (saññā), consciousness (viññāṇa), and wisdom (paññā).

1. Perception (saññā): This refers to all forms of knowledge within the domain of the perception aggregate, that is, perception along with knowledge stemming from perception. This includes the gathered and stored perceptions that become the raw material for thought and enable recognition, remembering, understanding, and contemplation.

According to the objects noted or perceived, perception is divided into six kinds: perception of form (rūpa-saññā), perception of sound (sadda-saññā), perception of smell (gandha-saññā), perception of taste (rasa-saññā), perception of tangible objects (phoṭṭhabba-saññā), and perception of mind objects (dhamma-saññā; perception of thoughts).11

According to how perceptions are formed, they can be roughly divided into two stages:

  1. Basic or initial perception: direct perception of the features and characteristics of things as they are, for example one perceives green, white, black, red, hard, soft, sour, sweet, round, flat, long, and short.12 This also includes perceptions linked to conventional designations (paññatti), for example: ’cat’, ’desk’, and ’chair’.

  2. Overlapping or supplementary perception: perception resulting from mental conceptualization,13 or perception in accord with various levels of knowledge and understanding, for example one perceives something as beautiful, revolting, despicable, impermanent, or nonself. This supplementary or secondary perception may be further subdivided into two kinds:

    1. Perception resulting from unwholesome mental proliferation (papañca-saññā); muddled or convoluted perception stemming from the elaborate embellishment by craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), and wrong view (diṭṭhi). The commentaries refer to it as ’defiled perception’ (kilesa-saññā): perception tinged with mental defilement.14 {38} It is perverted by defilement and thus deviates from the path of knowledge. Rather than fostering understanding, it breeds greed, hatred, and delusion, and it distorts or obstructs understanding. Examples of this kind of perception include: perceiving those features one considers despicable; perceiving those features that answer to covetousness; perceiving those attributes that feed a sense of self-importance; perceiving attributes in others whom one considers inferior; and perceptions of ultimate ownership and control.

    2. Perception resulting from wholesome thinking; perception springing from correct understanding. This perception is referred to as wholesome perception (kusala-saññā), perception conducive to knowledge (vijjābhāgiya-saññā), or by other similar terms. It fosters the development of wisdom and the growth of wholesome qualities. Examples of this kind of perception include: perceiving those attributes that foster friendship; and perceiving those attributes that reveal the state of causality, the state of impermanence, the state of nonself, etc.

Arahants15 have perception, but it is perception free from mental taints (āsava), free from defilement (kilesa).16 Arahants are able to identify proliferative perception (papañca-saññā) as experienced by unawakened people, or as they themselves used to experience it before their full awakening, but they do so simply for the sake of knowledge or in order to benefit others, for example when helping others to solve their problems. With these perceptions by arahants, there is no sense of being personally disturbed or affected. General Dhamma practitioners can model their own behaviour on this conduct by the arahants.

2. Consciousness (viññāṇa): All knowledge that is part of the consciousness-aggregate (viññāṇa-khandha); the principal form of all knowledge and awareness, which is the constant function of the mind. Consciousness is aware of all mental activity, as explained in Chapter 1.

3. Wisdom (paññā): This is the principal form of knowledge contained within the volitional formation aggregate (saṅkhāra-khandha). This factor too was already explained at length in chapter 1.17 Besides this chief form of knowledge, there are many other factors within the group of volitional formations that are related to the principle of knowledge and understanding. These factors are related to wisdom, either by supporting it, by acting as intermediary factors in wisdom development, or by acting as criteria for revealing the presence, absence, diminishment, or increase of wisdom. Most notably, these factors are:18

  • Faith (saddhā): belief; conviction; confidence; inspiration. Although faith is not itself a form of knowledge, it can act as a gateway to knowledge. Faith implies accepting the knowledge of others, trusting in others’ wisdom, and being willing to rely on other people’s knowledge, or other sources of knowledge, as a personal guide. If the person endowed with faith is able to reflect and to apply an initial reserve of wisdom, faith can lead to an understanding of the truth. This is particularly valid when the other person’s knowledge, or the other source of knowledge, is accurate and genuine, and when there is a virtuous friend (kalyāṇamitta) to advise in how to properly apply wisdom. On the contrary, however, if a person is gullible – that is, he is unable to apply wise reflection – and the people (along with other sources of information) he associates with are misguided, and he is without virtuous friends or has evil-minded friends, the results may be the opposite. He may be led to greater misunderstanding and delusion.19 {39}

  • View (diṭṭhi): knowledge according to one’s own notions and viewpoints. Diṭṭhi is an important stage in the development of wisdom. It follows on from a dependence by faith on other people’s knowledge, at which stage one arrives at one’s own personal understanding or reasoned discernment. View (diṭṭhi) and faith (saddhā) are often closely related, or they are two aspects of a single matter: the entrusting oneself to others’ knowledge and the willingness to follow them (with devotion) is faith; the adoption of those aspects of knowledge or of others’ advice, and identifying them as one’s own is ’view’. The important attribute of view is adhering to something as one’s own.20

    The knowledge classified as ’view’ (diṭṭhi) ranges from the irrational, to the moderately rational, to the highly rational. When view is developed to the point of correct knowledge and understanding – that which corresponds with reality – it is called ’right view’ (sammā-diṭṭhi) and is designated as ’wisdom’ (paññā).21 When one develops wisdom to the point of clearly discerning the nature of things, one no longer needs to seize this understanding as one’s own. This is because the truth exists in a neutral, objective way; it does not depend on anyone’s assertions or affirmations. It lies beyond the stage of ’view’.

    Because view tends to be linked with personal attachments, it often produces harmful effects. If one’s attachment is strong and unyielding, despite one’s views being very close to the truth, they will end up being an impediment, preventing one from realizing the truth.

  • Delusion (moha; ignorance): moha is a synonym for avijjā; both of these terms refer to an ignorance of the truth and a lack of understanding in regard to reality. This ignorance is the opposite of wisdom (paññā), particularly the specific form of wisdom called ’true knowledge’ (vijjā). One can say that delusion is the basic state of existence for human beings, who are encouraged to dispel it by way of true understanding (vijjā), or by way of wisdom development.

    Although one may study an extensive amount of technical knowledge (’arts and sciences’), and apply this knowledge in various enterprises, if it does not help one to understand things as they truly are – does not lead one to a true discernment of the conditioned world – it remains on the level of formal learning (suta): ’that which has been transmitted’; ’that which one has heard’. It is not yet true wisdom. It is unable to dispel ignorance or delusion, and it is unable to solve the basic predicament of life. It may solve some problems, but occasionally it breeds new ones. Take the example of someone who desires light and goes off in search of large quantities of kindling and fuel. No matter what this person does with these items, say by arranging them in various decorative patterns, as long as he has not ignited a flame, no light will shine forth.

Wisdom must be generated, cultivated, and gradually developed. There are many stages or levels of wisdom, and there are numerous important Pali terms used to refer to wisdom: either to specific stages of wisdom, specific attributes of wisdom, or specific origins of wisdom. Here is a list of some of these terms: pariññā (’thorough knowledge’), ñāṇa (’clear knowledge’), vijjā (’true knowledge’), aññā (’gnosis’), abhiññā (’supreme knowledge’), buddhi (’intelligence’), bodhi (’awakening’), and sambodhi (’full awakening’). {40}

The distinction between perception (saññā), consciousness (viññāṇa), and wisdom (paññā) was explained in chapter 1. There is, however, one point to reiterate here:

Consciousness (viññāṇa) is a pariññeyya-dhamma: it is something to be recognized and understood; our only task is to understand it as it is. We have no responsibility beyond this, because no matter what we do, consciousness functions according to its own nature.

Generally speaking, perception (saññā) is also a pariññeyya-dhamma: something to simply understand as it is.22 Perception resulting from unwholesome mental proliferation (papañca-saññā), or ’defiled perception’ (kilesa-saññā), however, is a pahātabba-dhamma: something to be abandoned or eliminated.23 Perception supportive to understanding and to fostering wholesome qualities is a bhāvetabba-dhamma: something to be cultivated, increased, and perfected.24

Wisdom (paññā) is a bhāvetabba-dhamma: something to be trained and developed, until it can be used to completely dispel delusion and ignorance.25

Pathways of Cognition

According to Buddha-Dhamma, ’contact’ (phassa) is the source of knowledge: all forms of understanding arise as a result of contact, or they arise at the point of contact (see Note Contact and Consciousness).26 That is, knowledge is dependent on cognition, whereby data passes through the six ’spheres’ (āyatana) or doorways (dvāra) of cognition: the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

Contact and Consciousness

Technically speaking, contact (phassa) is not a condition for the knowledge referred to as ’consciousness’ (viññāṇa), because consciousness is one of the factors involved for the arising of contact. For this reason, these sutta passages cited above do not state that phassa is the cause for the arising of the consciousness aggregate (viññāṇa-khandha); rather, they state that materiality and mentality (nāma-rūpa) is the cause for its arising. The expression in English, ’contact is the source of all knowledge’, is still valid, however, since the term ’source’ can refer both to ’cause’ and a ’place from which something is obtained’.

If one considers the six sense spheres as the starting points of cognition, one can classify knowledge into two kinds:

  1. Knowledge obtained by way of the five sense doors (pañca-dvāra): the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. This refers to basic forms of knowledge, i.e. knowing visual forms (including colours), sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibles (phoṭṭhabba; these can be summarized as: ’earth’ (paṭhavī): the state of solidity; ’fire’ (tejo): heat or temperature; and ’wind’ (vāyo): movement, vibration, and tension). {41}

  2. Knowledge obtained by way of the mind door (mano-dvāra),27 i.e. knowing mind objects (dhammārammaṇa; or dhamma, for short). This refers to all of those things known and reflected upon by the mind. For the sake of clarity, the Abhidhamma divides these into five kinds:28

    1. The feeling aggregate (vedanā-khandha). (This refers to feeling as something that is known by the mind. The following four factors should be understood in the same way.)

    2. The perception aggregate (saññā-khandha).

    3. The volitional formations aggregate (saṅkhāra-khandha).

    4. Anidassana-appaṭigha-rūpa: invisible, intangible form included in the classification of mind objects. This is also referred to as refined form (sukhuma-rūpa), and it is comprised of sixteen factors: the element of cohesion (āpo-dhātu); femininity (itthī-bhāva); masculinity (purisa-bhāva); physical basis of the mind (hadaya-rūpa); life-faculty (jīvitin-driya); material quality of nutrition (āhāra-rūpa; nutritive essence – ojā); space (ākāsa); bodily communication (kāya-viññatti); verbal communication (vacī-viññatti); the three qualities of alterability (vikāra-rūpa): levity (lahutā), softness (mudutā; malleability), and wieldiness (kammaññatā); and the four material qualities of salient features (lakkhaṇa-rūpa): growth or enlargement (upacaya), continuity (santati); decay (jaratā); and disintegration (aniccatā).

    5. The unconditioned element (asaṅkhata-dhātu), i.e. Nibbāna.

Later Abhidhamma texts present a more detailed analysis of mind objects (dhammārammaṇa), dividing them into six kinds:29

  1. Five sense organs (pasāda), i.e. the clarity or sensitivity which acts as the cognitive medium in regard to the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body.

  2. Sixteen kinds of refined materiality (sukhuma-rūpa), mentioned in the previous list (D).

  3. Heart (citta; ’mind’).

  4. Mental concomitants (cetasika); this corresponds to the feeling aggregate, perception aggregate, and volitional formations aggregate mentioned in the previous list.

  5. Nibbāna.

  6. Paññatti: established names, labels, and designations, for example: ’earth’, ’mountain’, ’car’, ’person’, ’North’, ’South’, ’cave’, ’pond’, ’island’, ’peninsula’, etc. These names and designations may refer to things that truly exist or to things that only exist in the imagination. Whether the things they refer to exist or not, however, these names and designations are timeless and indestructible. A hole going deep into a mountain is called a ’cave’. Wherever and whenever such a hole appears, it is consistently called a ’cave’. The term ’cave’ refers to only this specific phenomenon. The actual cave itself (and every cave), however, is subject to caving in or being filled in; it is subject to change and transformation.

    Similarly, that which is called ’perception’ arises and passes away, and is subject to disintegration, but the label ’perception’ does not disappear. Wherever and whenever such a phenomenon arises, it is consistently called ’perception’ (if there is a conventional agreement to use this term). The body is subject to decay, but the term ’body’ remains constant. Wherever such phenomena arise, they are referred to by such designations. Those people who do not understand this subject of conventional designations may be puzzled or confused when they encounter such phrases as ’feeling is impermanent’ or ’perception is impermanent’; they are unable to distinguish whether impermanence here refers to the actual phenomenon or to its designation. {42}

Such highly technical explanations may be difficult to understand. On some occasions, it is especially difficult to distinguish between certain kinds of knowledge obtained by way of the mind-door and knowledge obtained by way of the five senses. Yet these distinctions are very important. For example, when one hears someone else speaking, the knowledge by way of the five senses (in this case, the ’doorway’ of the ear) is simply an awareness of sound – one simply hears a sound. One does not yet understand the meaning of the words. Subsequent understanding is knowledge arising at the mind-door. Likewise, when one sees a rooftop, the knowledge by way of the five senses (the ’doorway’ of the eye) is simply an awareness of a shape or colour. Knowing the condition of ’covering’ and ’sheltering’, and knowing that the object is a roof, is achieved at the mind-door.

Knowledge by way of the mind, or the knowledge of mental objects (dhammārammaṇa), encompasses a very wide range. It includes both the mental awareness of data obtained by way of the five senses and knowledge exclusive to the mind itself. To clarify this matter, here is another format for classifying the knowledge obtained by way of the mind-door (mano-dvāra):

  1. Objects (i.e. ’emotions’) specific to the mind, e.g.: love, anger, confusion, mental clarity, happiness, unhappiness, grief, depression, loneliness, delight, courage, fear, etc.

  2. Conceptions pertaining to the past, of objects that were cognized by way of the five senses.

  3. Conceptions associated with materiality (rūpa-dhamma) cognized by way of the five senses, yet not made aware of by the consciousness (viññāṇa) specific to each of these senses. These include ’designations’ (paññatti) and conceptions of the relationship between various material phenomena, for example: the function of coherence, expansion, and the state of interrelationship and interdependency.

  4. Thoughts, imaginations, justifications, and judgements created as a result of emotions (A.), conceptions pertaining to the past (B.), and conceptions of the relationship between various material phenomena, along with designations (C.).

  5. Insight or exceptional knowledge that pervades a luminous mind. For example, when one discerns the true relationship between various factors, a clear understanding arises and one sees into the law of interrelated conditions (or ’law of relativity’). This knowledge is referred to as ñāṇa. An example is abhiññā (’supreme knowledge’).

  6. The Unconditioned, i.e. Nibbāna.

Note that in the scriptures, the preferred classification of knowledge obtained by way of the cognitive doorways is fourfold:30 {43}

  1. Diṭṭha: ’the seen’, i.e. all visible objects (rūpārammaṇa) and knowledge obtained by way of seeing and watching.

  2. Suta: ’the heard’, i.e. sounds and knowledge obtained by way of hearing and listening.

  3. Muta: ’the experienced’, i.e. odours, tastes, and tangibles, or those things cognized by way of the nose, tongue, and body.

  4. Viññāta: the ’realized’, i.e. mind objects (dhammārammaṇa): all things known by way of the mind.

The first three factors constitute knowledge by way of the five senses. This threefold division is made because seeing and hearing are critical sources of knowledge and involve an extensive range of activity; these two factors are thus distinguished from the rest. The three remaining factors, pertaining to the nose, tongue, and body, share a common attribute: here, cognition is accomplished when the sense objects – odours, tastes, and tangibles – literally make contact with the respective sense base. This differs from the eye and the ear, which cognize objects that do not ’touch’ the sense base (visual objects rely on light and sounds rely on waves as the means of conveying information.)31

Technically speaking, the knowledge obtained by way of the five senses is very limited. In this context, however, this knowledge is defined in a broad, general sense: diṭṭha refers both to that which is seen and to all knowledge dependent on the eye and on seeing, including the mind’s interpretation of this visual data. Yet this interpretation of data still remains on a direct and basic level, without any additional embellishment. Suta refers to that which is heard and to all knowledge derived from hearing. This includes speech and language, which the mind has interpreted on a basic level, but which has not yet undergone additional conceptualization. Muta, too, should be understood in this way. Technically speaking, this knowledge pertaining to the five senses – diṭṭha, suta, and muta – extends as far as ’perception by way of the five senses’ (pañcadvārika-saññā). All knowledge beyond that is encompassed by the term viññāta: knowledge dependent on the mind door.

Wisdom Development

The knowledge corresponding to and required for wisdom development is referred to as knowledge ’to be developed’ (bhāvetabba-dhamma). Because consciousness (viññāṇa) is a form of knowledge simply ’to be understood’ (pariññeyya-dhamma; ’to be recognized’), it is not included as a factor in this context.

There are three kinds of knowledge pertaining to wisdom development. According to stages of development, or to the potency of wisdom and understanding, they are ordered in this sequence:

  1. Perception (saññā): knowledge derived from perceiving, remembering, and identifying the attributes of things. This knowledge is recorded in the mind. It acts as a model for comparison and as raw material for thinking and for subsequent understanding. This perception can be divided into two kinds, as described earlier (see: A. Nature of Knowing).

    The perception arising in the normal cognitive process – both basic perception and the perception accompanying the growth of understanding in wisdom development – is simply a matter of either knowing or not knowing. This is true even if one is referring to various levels of perception, say from indistinct to lucid perception, from partial to complete perception, or from false to correct perception. This matter thus pertains directly to knowledge and the development of knowledge. This is in direct contrast to the excessive or immoderate perception known as ’proliferative perception’ (papañca-saññā) or ’defiled perception’ (kilesa-saññā), which invariably obstructs and distorts knowledge. {44}

  2. View (diṭṭhi): reasoned understanding; truth on the level of conceptualization; knowledge mixed with cherished thoughts and opinions. Here, a person draws conclusions of some kind, and attaches to specific viewpoints as his or her own. This knowledge may originate from an external source, but it has passed through a screening process and is adopted as one’s own, regardless of how logical or reasonable this knowledge may be. It can even be illogical. Examples of view include: eternalism (sassata-diṭṭhi; the view of an eternal soul); annihilationism (uccheda-diṭṭhi); and the view of non-causality (ahetuka-diṭṭhi).

  3. Direct knowledge (ñāṇa): profound knowledge; gnosis. The term ñāṇa is a synonym of paññā (’wisdom’), but its definition tends to be more restricted. That is, it refers to specific functions and fruits of wisdom, for example: kammassakatā-ñāṇa (the insight into how beings are the owners of their intentional actions); atītaṁsa-ñāṇa (profound knowledge of the past); saccānulomika-ñāṇa (knowledge in harmony with the truth); ṭhānāṭhāna-ñāṇa (knowledge of the possible and the impossible); and nānādhimuttika-ñāṇa (knowledge of the disposition, traits, and beliefs of various beings). Ñāṇa refers to a pure and radiant knowledge that arises spontaneously in the mind and discerns a particular quality as it really is.

Although there are many levels of ñāṇa, including mistaken knowledge or incomplete knowledge, they can all be referred to as ’pure’ or ’genuine’ forms of knowledge, because they have not yet been adulterated by self-identification or self-attachment. Occasionally ñāṇa arises as a consequence of reasoned thought, but this knowledge exists independent of such thought, because it connects with some aspect of reality that truly exists. This is one distinction between ñāṇa and diṭṭhi. The knowledge referred to as diṭṭhi relies on personal beliefs and logical reasoning, whereas ñāṇa makes contact with external aspects of reality that truly exist.32

On a basic level, perception (saññā) is the raw material for all thinking and subsequent knowledge. For this reason, both view (diṭṭhi) and direct knowledge (ñāṇa) rely on perception.

It is fairly obvious how view arises from perception. The very perception or discernment of something urges one to establish an opinion about it. Although perceiving the features of things is useful in everyday life, perception is selective and often acts to conceal or eclipse other features of these objects. If people fail to examine these dynamics, they may be deceived by perception or allow it to obstruct wisdom. This is the case for many people. The causes for wrong view to arise include false perceptions and also an incorrect application of perception.

The following passages from the Pali Canon describe how view arises as a consequence of perception:

An arahant does not possess even minor views arising from and produced by perception, pertaining to the seen, the heard, and the experienced. To wit: view has perception as its leader and principal agent, and it discriminates things according to perception. An arahant, free from mental taints, possesses no view produced by perception, created by perception, fashioned by perception, pertaining to the seen, etc.33 {45}

Nd. I. 110-11 (explaining: Sn. 156-8)

There are not many diverse truths in the world, except as a consequence of perception (resulting in diverse views).

Sn. 173.

The arising of direct knowledge (ñāṇa) is also dependent on perception:

Perception arises first, Poṭṭhapāda, then knowledge, and from the arising of perception comes the arising of knowledge.

D. I. 185.

The passage: ’From this you have not perceived the least sense,’ may be explained thus: ’You have not perceived those things you have engaged with or accomplished, nor have you perceived the characteristics, the causes, or the effects. “From this” means “from internal peace”, “from spiritual practice”, or “from Dhamma teachings”. From where else will you obtain knowledge?’

Nd. I. 193 (explaining: Sn. 165-6).

A person may watch falling leaves and consequently develop insight knowledge (vipassanā-ñāṇa) and discern the impermanence of all things. This knowledge relies on numerous perceptions as its source, for example: perceptions of life and the sustenance of all things; perceptions of aging and decay; perceptions of deterioration, death, and the ending of things; and perceptions of ’above’ and ’below’. The ability to see the relationship between these various perceptions gives rise to knowledge. Or take an example of worldly knowledge (lokiya-ñāṇa): when Isaac Newton observed the apple falling from the tree, he developed the insight into gravity. This insight relied on myriad perceptions, for example: perceptions of ’falling’; perceptions of convergence; perceptions of space and force; and perceptions of attraction, mobility, release, suspension, linearity, trajectory, etc. The ability to clearly see the relationship between these various perceptions gave rise to this insight into gravity.

Direct knowledge (ñāṇa) is able to give rise to view (diṭṭhi), and superior forms of view tend to arise as a consequence of previously accessed knowledge. A clear example of this from the suttas is the story of the Brahma god named Baka, who was able to recall the birth of beings for an expanse of time that appeared infinite. He observed the countless births and deaths of other beings, while he himself remained the same. He thus developed the view that the abode of Brahma is permanent and eternal, and that Brahma is the creator of all things.34 Similarly, Newton, after his discovery of gravity, used this insight to further observe natural phenomena, but his vision and understanding was not comprehensive. He was still stuck at or deceived by certain things. Knowledge and insight is thus susceptible to the attachment referred to as ’view’ (diṭṭhi).

Conversely, view (diṭṭhi) supports the arising of knowledge (ñāṇa). Many views result from contemplation and are highly logical and reasonable. They become established as beliefs in the minds of intelligent individuals and philosophers. For this reason, if one does not attach to these views in an unyielding way, and one is able to listen to others and to apply wise reflection, there is a good chance that a deeper knowledge will arise, paving the way to spiritual progress and removing any obstacles in the path. {46}

When view (diṭṭhi) or direct knowledge (ñāṇa) arises, new perceptions (saññā) are formed accordingly. Diṭṭhi and ñāṇa thus give rise to perception (saññā), which acts as the raw material for further contemplation and understanding. The difference here is that view tends to create false perceptions, whereas direct knowledge helps to create accurate, correct perceptions and to dispel false perceptions.35

The three kinds of knowledge – saññā, diṭṭhi, and ñāṇa – embodied in wisdom development are related to the three methods the Buddha described for generating wisdom:36

  1. Cintāmaya-paññā: wisdom arising from one’s own reflection and reasoning.

  2. Sutamaya-paññā: wisdom arising from learning or the transmission of knowledge from others.

  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: wisdom arising from engaging in spiritual practice and cultivation. (See Note Factors of Generating Wisdom)

Factors of Generating Wisdom

In the suttas these three factors are named but not explained. When explaining the first two factors, the Abhidhamma focuses on kammassakatā-ñāṇa (the knowledge of the personal ownership of intentional action) and saccānulomika-ñāṇa (knowledge in harmony with the truth), i.e. it focuses on insight knowledge (vipassanā-ñāṇa), which arises as a result of engaging in work and technical discipline. The Abhidhamma equates the third factor with samāpannassa-paññā (the wisdom of one who possesses or accomplishes), which the commentaries define as the ’wisdom of one who is endowed with concentrative attainment (samāpatti)’, i.e. the wisdom arising from concentration (samādhi). See: VbhA. 413; VismṬ.: Khandhaniddesavaṇṇanā, Paññāpabhedakathāvaṇṇanā. But if one defines this term in a general sense, it can mean the ’wisdom of one who applies himself’, the ’wisdom of one who practises’, or the ’wisdom of one who earnestly engages in an activity’. See Appendix 1.

Besides these three chief methods, there exist numerous other means for developing wisdom. Especially in relation to the third method, these important activities include: listening (savana); inquiry and review (paripucchā); conversation, discussion, and debate (sākacchā); observing and watching (passana); scrutiny (nijjhāna); wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra; yoniso-upaparikkhā); evaluation (tulanā); examination, investigation, and analysis (vīmaṁsā); experimentation and selection (vijaya); repetition (āsevana); cultivation (bhāvanā); and continuous and devoted practice (bahulī-karaṇa).37

Reflection (cintā), learning (suta), and training (bhāvanā) help to generate, improve, and fine-tune perception (saññā), view (diṭṭhi), and direct knowledge (ñāṇa).

The learning imparted by others (suta), thoughts and reflections (cintā), and wisdom arising from practical application (bhāvanā) are all forms of knowledge inherent in an individual. The distinct and concrete knowledge manifesting in a person’s mind, however, are the three forms of knowledge described earlier: perception (saññā), view (diṭṭhi), and direct knowledge (ñāṇa). One can say that perception, view, and direct knowledge are the end results of learning, thinking, and practical training.

Perception (saññā), view (diṭṭhi), and direct knowledge (ñāṇa) have a powerful impact on people’s lives. Perception is highly influential in the cognitive process, in discerning and comprehending the world, and in generating other forms of knowledge. View, from religious beliefs and various ideologies, to personal values, acts as the guideline for people’s entire range of behaviour and way of life. Direct knowledge is the most pristine and profound form of knowledge – the fruit of the highest wisdom accessible to human beings. It is able to cleanse the innate character of people, and to create or change people’s worldview (loka-dassana) and outlook on life (jīva-dassana). Its effects on people’s behaviour and conduct is more lasting and definite than the effects produced by view (diṭṭhi).

These forms of knowledge discussed above are related to the classification of knowledge explained in the next section. {47}

Human Activities and Accomplishments

This heading refers to the knowledge pertaining to human social affairs, including: communication, imparting of information, research, symbolism, means of showing respect, social affiliations, and the transmission of a society’s heritage, which is the possession of all people and marks the advancement of a particular civilization. This form of knowledge can be divided into three kinds:38

  1. Suta (or suti): knowledge that has been heard, learned, or transmitted. It can be subdivided into two kinds:

    1. Knowledge heard, taught, or transmitted among human beings (in Pali this knowledge is referred to as suta). Buddhism considers this knowledge and learning to be of vital importance. In the context of wisdom development, it is referred to as the ’instruction by others’ (paratoghosa; literally, the ’utterance by others’). Wholesome instruction is given great emphasis in the teachings, as a basis and condition for right view (sammā-diṭṭhi).39 This knowledge (suta) includes formal schooling, news by way of the media, book- or textual knowledge, and recorded history. Even the suttas in the Tipiṭaka are a form of such knowledge. (Most of the suttas begin with the phrase, ’Thus have I heard’ – evaṃ me sutaṃ.)

    2. The knowledge that some religions proclaim has been revealed and disclosed by a supreme divinity. The brahmins, for example, believe that the Vedas were directly transmitted by Brahma. In Pali, this form of knowledge is usually referred to as suti, corresponding to the Sanskrit ṡruti. In Buddhism, however, this knowledge is not considered to hold any unique distinction and it is thus included in the term suta. In light of wisdom, it is not attributed any special value; its difference lies purely in its content.

  2. Diṭṭhi: views; opinions; theories; doctrines; beliefs. This refers to particular conclusions one draws about things. This understanding is associated with personal attachments and affinities, and it has the potential to create a sense of separation from others. Although this factor has been discussed above, here the focus is on its role in a social context. When personal beliefs extend outwards, and people declare or proclaim their views, others may adopt these beliefs, giving rise to factionalism and the creation of institutions or schools of thought.

    There are many Pali synonyms for the term diṭṭhi (Sanskrit: dṛishṭi). The most important ones are: khanti (’compatible idea’, ’acceptable principle’); ruci (’cherished idea’, ’pleasing principle’); and laddhi (’acquired idea’, ’dogma’, ’tenet of practice’, ’way of practice considered beneficial’, ’religious belief’.)40

  3. Ñāṇa: gnosis; direct knowledge; insight; pure knowledge; knowledge in accord with truth; wisdom resulting in a specific truth; comprehensive knowledge of a specific matter. Ñāṇa is the highest form of human knowledge and is of vital importance. Both in its mundane and transcendent forms, ñāṇa is the driving force for the development of ’noble qualities’ (ariya-dhamma) in human beings. The supreme ñāṇa is referred to as bodhi or bodhiñāṇa: ’enlightenment’, ’awakening’. The Buddha realized ’perfect, complete awakening’ (sammāsambodhi-ñāṇa), giving rise to Buddhism as the source of great vision for the world. {48}

There exist other, miscellaneous classifications of knowledge in the scriptures, in which various kinds of knowledge mentioned above are combined into groups, for example this group of five factors:

  1. Itiha (+ anussava) itikirā paramparā: knowledge derived from spoken information, news reports, listening, education, and transmission.

  2. Piṭaka-sampadā: standard scriptural knowledge.

  3. Takka naya ākāraparivitaka: knowledge derived through reasoning, including applied logic (takka), deductive thinking (anumāna), and reasoned reflection.

  4. Diṭṭhi-nijjhānakkhanti: knowledge that is considered compatible with one’s views or which one endorses as part of one’s personal beliefs.

  5. Sayamabhiññā (or sakkhi-dhamma): knowledge stemming from personal realization (atta-paccakkha). Knowledge derived from discerning the truth: from insight into the truth. This knowledge has been reflected upon with wise judgement; it has been clarified and made manifest.

Accurate and Defective Knowledge

Although Buddhist epistemology is an extensive subject, here we will look at only two more aspects, pertaining to correct and incorrect knowledge.

Two Levels of Truth

Students of Buddhism may experience confusion about the subject of truth. On the one hand, they hear such teachings as: do not associate with fools, associate with the wise; a foolish person has these attributes, a sage has these attributes; be content with what one has, do not covet the possessions of others; one is one’s own refuge; and one should offer mutual support. Other teachings, on the other hand, state: discern according to truth that the body is simply the body; it is not a ’being’, a ’person’, a ’self’, ’me’, ’you’, ’him’ or ’her’; it does not belong to us; it is not lasting and substantial; all things are nonself (anattā). These people then see these teachings as contradictory, or else they get confused and due to a limited understanding practise in an unbalanced, incorrect way. At times when they should speak or act according to a basic, conventional understanding of the world, they attach to teachings on ultimate truth, causing all sorts of confusion and even harm for themselves and others.

As an attempt to prevent such confusion and erroneous behaviour, the Abhidhamma divides the truth (sacca) into two levels:41

  1. Conventional truth (sammati-sacca): another name for this is vohāra-sacca: ’rhetorical truth’, ’vernacular truth’. This refers to consensual truth: to those things that have been mutually agreed upon and to common designations. These designations are used as tools for communication, for the sake of convenience and benefit in everyday life. Examples include the designations: ’person’, ’animal’, ’good person’, ’bad person’, ’table’, ’chair’, and ’book’, and the common words ’water’ and ’salt’. {49}

  2. Absolute truth (paramattha-sacca): to the extent that this truth can be articulated in words, the descriptions are intended for fully comprehending things as they really are. The aim here is to give rise to the supreme benefit of penetrating the ultimate truth (sacca-dhamma), an understanding which dispels all attachments, delusions, and defilements, fosters a proper relationship to things, brings about a freedom from suffering, and leads to true purity, peace, and happiness.

    Examples of absolute truths include: mentality (nāma-dhamma), corporeality (rūpa-dhamma), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volitional formations (saṅkhāra), consciousness (viññāṇa), the mind (citta), mental concomitants (cetasika), material form (rūpa), Nibbāna, contact (phassa), intention (cetanā), one-pointed attention (ekaggatā), the life faculty (jīvitindriya), etc. A comparison to modern science is the analysis of water or salt. For scientists, the terms ’water’ and ’salt’ may be deemed inadequate, ambiguous, or misleading. For more accuracy, they thus define water as Hydrogen Oxide (H2O) and common salt as Sodium Chloride (NaCl). (Note that this comparison does not correspond completely to the description here of absolute truth, but it shows how even in other branches of knowledge certain aspects of truth are distinguished from people’s ordinary understanding and definitions.)

In any case, the Abhidhamma, which assigns specific technical terms to these concepts of conventional and ultimate truth, cites passages from the suttas to substantiate its claim. This shows that these concepts existed from the beginning. Most likely, at the time of the Buddha, there was a basic understanding of these concepts, and it was thus unnecessary to establish unique descriptive terms for them. The key sutta passage cited in this context is a teaching by Bhikkhunī Vajirā:

Māra, how can you believe in a being and hold [such] a view? This is purely a mass of formations; here, no being can be found. Just as with the combination of various parts, the term ’wagon’ ensues, so too, with the five aggregates the conventional term ’being’ ensues.

S. I. 135; cited at Kvu. 86-7.

In relation to everyday spiritual practice, there are many passages by the Buddha emphasizing an understanding of conventional and absolute truths. The Buddha encouraged people to recognize language merely as a means of communication, without attaching to conventions or becoming enslaved by language. Here are two examples:

An arahant with taints destroyed may say, ’I speak this way, and they speak to me this way.’ Skilful, knowing the world’s parlance, he uses such terms as mere expressions.

S. I. 14.

These are worldly terms, expressions, manners of speech and designations. The Tathāgata uses these, but does not attach to them.

D. I. 202.

Note that the Abhidhamma describes the suttas – the Suttanta Piṭaka – as a vernacular teaching (vohāra-desanā), because the majority of its subject matter is comprised of conventional language. In contrast, the Abhidhamma describes itself as an absolute teaching (paramattha-desanā), because the majority of its content is a direct presentation of absolute truths.42 {50}

Three Aberrations of Knowledge

The Pali term vipallāsa refers to aberrant or errant knowledge – knowledge that deviates from the truth. It is fundamentally flawed, leading to misunderstanding, delusion, self-deception, and an incorrect attitude and conduct vis-à-vis one’s life and all things. It is an impediment, shielding one from discerning reality (sacca-bhāva). There are three kinds of aberrant knowledge:

  1. Saññā-vipallāsa: aberrant perception; wrong or defective perception.

  2. Citta-vipallāsa: aberrant ’mind’; wrong or defective thought.

  3. Diṭṭhi-vipallāsa: aberrant view; wrong or defective view.

Examples of aberrant perception include: someone frightened by a piece of rope, perceiving it as a snake; animals encountering a scarecrow and seeing it as a real person guarding a field; someone completely disorientated, seeing north as south, south as north; and someone fleeing from the light of a flashing sign, perceiving it as a fire.

Examples of aberrant mind include: an insane person thinking grass is food; a deranged person paranoid of others, thinking they plan to do him harm; someone seeing a moving shadow in the dark and imagining it to be a ghost; and the story of Chicken Little, who, after an acorn hit her on the head, thought that the sky is falling.43

Aberrant view generally arises as a consequence of aberrant perception and aberrant mind. When one perceives something incorrectly, one views it incorrectly. Similarly, when one thinks in deviant and errant ways, one’s views and beliefs are accordingly mistaken. When one wrongly perceives a rope as a snake, one may come to the conclusion that this particular location is teeming with snakes. When one perceives the land as extending out evenly, in a straight line, one believes that the earth is flat. When one thinks that an external, conscious force is required to manage and control things, one develops the belief that gods are responsible for thunder, lightning, earthquakes, rain, and floods.

These examples are relatively simple, and one can say that they pertain to unusual situations. In the Pali Canon and in other Dhamma teachings, however, these aberrations are examined on a refined and fundamental level. They focus not merely on the false understanding by select individuals or groups, but more importantly on deviant forms of understanding that almost everyone is subject to, often unconsciously. People tend to be dominated by these fundamental or subtle deviations. Here, the three aberrations mentioned above are combined as a single group:

Monks, there are these four aberrations of perception, aberrations of mind, and aberrations of view. What four?:

  1. The aberration of perception, mind, and view that takes the impermanent to be permanent.

  2. The aberration of perception, mind, and view that takes what is suffering to be pleasurable.

  3. The aberration of perception, mind, and view that takes what is nonself to be self.

  4. The aberration of perception, mind, and view that takes what is unattractive to be attractive.44 {51}

    A. II. 52; Ps. II. 80.

These aberrations of perception, mind, and view impede spiritual development, and their elimination is thus an important target of wisdom practice. Those methods of developing knowledge described earlier all help to dispel these aberrations. Most effective for this task is an investigation into causes and conditions and a detailed and mindful analysis of the building blocks of conditioned reality.45

The Buddha’s Words on the Sense Spheres

(The expression ’Buddha’s words’ here refers to the ’sayings of the wise, with the Buddha at the helm’ (buddhādivacana) , that is, the teachings in the Tipiṭaka by the Buddha, the chief disciples, and subsequent learned and wise individuals. This brief heading is used for the sake of simplicity. The references indicate which passages are by the Buddha’s disciples.)

Monks, I will teach you the all.46 Listen carefully. And what is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all.

S. IV. 15.

’Venerable sir, it is said, “the world, the world.” In what way, might there be the world or the description of the world?’

’Where there is the eye, Samiddhi, where there are forms, eye-consciousness, things to be cognized by eye-consciousness, there the world exists or the description of the world. Where there is the ear … the mind, where there are mental phenomena, mind-consciousness, things to be cognized by mind-consciousness, there the world exists or the description of the world.’

S. IV. 39-40.

’Monks, I say that the end of the world cannot be known, seen, or reached by travelling. Yet I also say that without reaching the end of the world there is no making an end to suffering.’

[Ven. Ānanda spoke]: ’I understand the detailed meaning of this synopsis, which the Buddha recited in brief without a detailed exposition, as follows: by whatever means people perceive the world as the world, and consider the world to be the world – this is called the ’world’ in the Noble One’s Discipline.

’And by which means do people people perceive the world as the world, consider the world to be the world? It is by way of the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … and mind that people perceive the world as the world, consider the world as the world.’

S. IV. 95.

Monks, I will teach you the origin and the passing away of the world. Listen closely….

And what is the origin of the world? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling [comes to be]; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, becoming; with becoming as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. This is the origin of the world.

In dependence on the ear and sounds … the nose and odours … the tongue and tastes … the body and tactile objects … the mind and mental phenomena, mind-consciousness arises…. This is the origin of the world. {52}

And what is the passing away of the world? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling [comes to be]; with feeling as condition, craving. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving comes cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of becoming; with the cessation of becoming, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. This is the passing away of the world.

In dependence on the ear and sounds … the nose and odours … the tongue and tastes … the body and tactile objects … the mind and mental phenomena, mind-consciousness arises…. This is the passing away of the world.

S. IV. 87.

’Venerable sir, it is said, “Māra, Māra,”…. It is said, “a being, a being,”…. It is said, “suffering, suffering”…. In what way might there be Māra or the description of Māra … a being or the description of a being … suffering or a description of suffering?’

’Where there is the eye, Samiddhi, where there are forms, eye-consciousness, things to be cognized by eye-consciousness … the mind, where there are mental phenomena, mind-consciousness, things to be cognized by mind-consciousness, there Māra exists or the description of Māra … a being exists or the description of a being … suffering exists or the description of suffering.’

S. IV. 38-9.

When the eye exists, the arahants designate pleasure and pain. When the eye does not exist the arahants do not designate pleasure and pain. When the ear … nose … tongue … body … mind exists, the arahants designate pleasure and pain. When the ear … nose … tongue … body … mind does not exist, the arahants do not designate pleasure and pain.

S. IV. 123-4.

Monks, the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … mind is impermanent … subject to stress (dukkha) … nonself. The cause and condition for the arising of the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … mind is also impermanent. As the eye … ear … nose … tongue … body … mind has originated from what is impermanent … dukkha … nonself … how could it be permanent … inherently pleasurable (sukha) … self?

Forms … sounds … smells … tastes … tangibles … mind objects are impermanent … dukkha … nonself. The cause and condition for the arising of forms … sounds … smells … tastes … tangibles … mind objects are also impermanent. As forms … sounds … smells … tastes … tangibles … mind objects have originated from what is impermanent … dukkha … nonself … how could they be permanent … inherently pleasurable … self?

S. IV. 129-32.

Suppose, monks, that the rice seedlings have ripened and the watchman is negligent. If a bull fond of rice enters the paddy field, he might indulge himself as much as he likes. So too, the uninstructed worldling who does not exercise restraint over the six bases for contact indulges himself as much as he likes in the five cords of sensual pleasure.

S. IV. 195-6.

Monks, these six bases for contact – if untrained, unguarded, unprotected, unrestrained – are conveyers of suffering…. These six bases for contact – if well-trained, well-guarded, well-protected, well-restrained – are conveyers of happiness. {53}

S. IV. 70.

’How is it, friend Sāriputta, is the eye the fetter of forms or are forms the fetter of the eye? Is the ear the fetter of sounds … the nose the fetter of odours … the tongue the fetter of tastes … the body the fetter of tangible objects … the mind the fetter of mental phenomena or are mental phenomena the fetter of the mind?’

’Friend Koṭṭhita, the eye is not the fetter of forms nor are forms the fetter of the eye, but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both the eye and forms: that is the fetter there…. The mind is not the fetter of mental phenomena nor are mental phenomena the fetter of the mind, but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both: that is the fetter there.

’If the eye were the fetter of forms or if forms were the fetter of the eye, this living of the holy life could not be actualized for the complete destruction of suffering. But since the eye is not the fetter of forms nor are forms the fetter of the eye – but rather the desire and lust that arise there in dependence on both is the fetter there – the living of the holy life can be actualized for the complete destruction of suffering….

’The Blessed One has an eye, the Blessed One sees forms with the eye, yet there is no desire and lust in the Blessed One; the Blessed One is well liberated in mind. The Blessed One has an ear … nose … tongue … body … mind, yet there is no desire and lust in the Blessed One; the Blessed One is well liberated in mind.’

S. IV. 162-5.

’Although, venerable sir, I am old, aged, burdened with years, advanced in life, come to the last stage, let the Blessed One, the Well Farer, teach me the Dhamma in brief. Perhaps I may understand the meaning of the Blessed One’s statement, perhaps I may become an heir to the Blessed One’s statement.’

’What do you think, Māluṅkyaputta, do you have any desire, lust, or affection for those forms cognizable by the eye that you have not seen and never saw before, that you do not see and would not think might be seen?’

’No, venerable sir.’

’Do you have desire, lust, or affection for those sounds cognizable by the ear … odours cognizable by the nose … tastes cognizable by the tongue … tangibles cognizable by the body … mind objects cognizable by the mind that you have not known and never knew before, that you do not know and would not think might be known?’

’No, venerable sir.’

’Here, Māluṅkyaputta, regarding things seen, heard, sensed, and known by you: in the seen there will be merely the seen; in the heard there will be merely the heard; in the sensed47 there will be merely the sensed; in the known there will be merely the known.

’When, regarding things seen, heard, sensed, and known by you, in the seen there will be merely the seen, in the heard there will be merely the heard, in the sensed there will be merely the sensed, in the known there will be merely the known, then, you will not exist by way of that.48 When you do not exist by way of that, you will not exist therein.49 When you do not exist therein, then there will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two.50 This itself is the end of suffering.’

’I understand, venerable sir…. Having seen a form with muddled mindfulness, attending only to the pleasing signs, one experiences it with infatuated mind, and remains tightly holding to it. {54}

’Many feelings flourish within, originating from visible form, and one’s mind becomes disturbed by covetousness and distress. For one who accumulates suffering thus, Nibbāna is said to be far away.

’Having heard a sound … having smelt an odour … having tasted a flavour … having felt a tangible … having known a mental phenomenon with muddled mindfulness…. For one who accumulates suffering thus, Nibbāna is said to be far away.

’When firmly mindful, one sees a form yet does not attach to form. With a mind uninfatuated, one experiences feelings without enslavement to the sense object.

’One fares mindfully in such a way that even as one sees the form and while one experiences a feeling, suffering is exhausted, not built up. For one not accumulating suffering thus, Nibbāna is said to be close by.

’When firmly mindful, one hears a sound … smells an odour … tastes a flavour … feels a tangible … knows a mental phenomenon, yet does not attach to mental phenomena…. For one not accumulating suffering thus, Nibbāna is said to be close by.’

S. IV. 72-5.

In what way is one ’with sense doors unguarded’? Here, having seen a form with the eye, someone is intent upon a pleasing form and repelled by a displeasing form. He dwells without having set up mindfulness, with a limited mind, and he does not understand as it really is that liberation of mind, that liberation by wisdom, wherein those evil unwholesome states cease without remainder. Having heard a sound … having smelt an odour … having tasted a flavour … having felt a tangible … having known a mental object, he is intent upon a pleasing object and repelled by a displeasing object….

In what way is one ’with sense doors guarded?’ Here, having seen a form with the eye, someone is not intent upon a pleasing form and not repelled by a displeasing form. He dwells having set up mindfulness, with a measureless mind, and he understands as it really is that liberation of mind, that liberation by wisdom, wherein those evil unwholesome states within cease without remainder. Having heard a sound … having smelt an odour … having tasted a flavour … having felt a tangible … having known a mental object he is not intent upon a pleasing object and not repelled by a displeasing object.51

S. IV. 119-120.

And how, monks, does one dwell diligently? If one dwells with restraint over the eye faculty, the mind is not distracted by forms cognizable by the eye. If the mind is not distracted, gladness is born. When one is gladdened, rapture is born. When the mind is uplifted by rapture, the body becomes tranquil. One tranquil in body experiences happiness. The mind of one who is happy becomes concentrated. When the mind is concentrated, phenomena become manifest. Because phenomena become manifest, one is reckoned as ’one who dwells diligently’. (The same is true for the remaining five sense faculties.)

S. IV. 78-9.

Ānanda, how is there the supreme development of the faculties in the Noble One’s Discipline? Here, when a bhikkhu sees a form with the eye … hears a sound with the ear … smells an odour with the nose … tastes a flavour with the tongue … feels a tangible with the body … knows a mental object with the mind, there arises in him what is agreeable, there arises what is disagreeable, there arises what is both agreeable and disagreeable.

He understands thus: ’There has arisen in me what is agreeable, there has arisen what is disagreeable, there has arisen what is both agreeable and disagreeable. But that is conditioned, gross, dependently arisen. This subsequent state is peaceful and sublime, that is, equanimity.’ {55} The agreeable that arose, the disagreeable that arose, and the both agreeable and disagreeable that arose in him cease, and equanimity is established.

Just as a man with good sight, having opened his eyes might shut them or having shut his eyes might open them, so too concerning anyone at all, the agreeable that arose, the disagreeable that arose, and the both agreeable and disagreeable that arose cease just as quickly, just as rapidly, just as easily, and equanimity is established. This is called in the Noble One’s Discipline the supreme development of the faculties….

M. III. 299.

Bhikkhus, when one discerns the eye as it actually is, when one discerns forms as they actually are, when one discerns and sees eye-consciousness as it actually is, when one discerns eye-contact as it actually is, when one discerns as it actually is the pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings that arise with eye-contact as condition, then one is not caught up with the eye, with forms, with eye-consciousness, with eye-contact, with the pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings that arise with eye-contact as condition.

When one abides unattached, unobsessed, uninfatuated, realizing danger, then the five aggregates affected by clinging are not accumulated in the future; and one’s craving – which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and searches for amusement in this or that – is abandoned. One’s bodily and mental worries are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental torments are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental fevers are abandoned.

Such a person experiences bodily and mental pleasure. The view of a person such as this is right view. His intention is right intention, his effort is right effort, his mindfulness is right mindfulness, his concentration is right concentration. His bodily action, his verbal action, and his livelihood have already been well purified earlier. Thus this Noble Eightfold Path comes to fulfilment in him by development. (The same applies to the remaining five sense bases.) {56}

M. III. 288-9.

Practical Application

The sense bases (āyatana) constitute the critical juncture between the wholesome and the unwholesome. One path leads to heedlessness, immorality, and an indulgence in worldly things. Another path leads to comprehensive knowledge, skilful actions, and liberation.

If people fail to develop a proper understanding and conduct in relation to the sense bases, they tend to be enticed or seduced into indulging in worldly things. They spend most of their energy on seeking pleasing forms, sounds, fragrances, tastes, and bodily contacts, along with related amusements, to minister to their desires. As a result, they increase greed, hatred, and delusion, and cause trouble and turmoil for themselves and others.

It is fairly obvious how conflict, maltreatment, exploitation, and oppression, along with other unresolved social problems, are largely a consequence of dissolute or unrestrained lifestyles, in which people are lured into a path of gratifying the senses, until this behaviour becomes intensified and habitual.

Many people never receive any reminders or encouragement to reflect on their behaviour and on how they cater to sense desire. They never consciously practise sense restraint and as a result they become increasingly heedless.

One aspect to resolving this ethical dilemma is to foster an understanding in people as to the proper role and limitations of the sense bases and the related sense objects. Another aspect is to have people train in sense restraint, and in guiding and managing the use of the senses for bringing about true personal and social wellbeing.

The sense bases are the source of pleasure and pain, of happiness and unhappiness, which for most ordinary, unawakened people is directly connected to their principal objectives in life and to the determined effort they make in almost every activity. Pleasure and happiness is actively pursued, and pain and suffering is actively avoided.

After exerting great effort pursuing worldly pleasures, often to the point of exhaustion, many people find themselves disappointed, for many reasons: their desires may remain unfulfilled; when they encounter sweet and delicious experiences, they must also face the bitterness that life offers – sometimes increased pleasure is overshadowed by increased mental pain and affliction, which in the end becomes more costly than the rewards obtained by pleasure – the pursuit of pleasure is then not worth the effort; they may find gratification, but not as much as they had wished; or they reach their target, but discover that happiness continually eludes them. Some people spend their entire lives chasing after true happiness, but never find it.

Many of these disappointed individuals end up in despair, wandering aimlessly through life and ruing the past. Others go to the extreme opposite of seeking sense pleasure, and instead they try to dissociate from life and undergo practices of self-mortification. {57}

The study of the sense bases is intended for a comprehensive understanding of the truth and for developing a correct attitude and relationship to sense pleasure, so that it does not cause harm to oneself and others. At the very least, these teachings provide principles and guidelines for rectifying any problems resulting from engagement with the senses. Besides offering a cautionary note about how one pursues sense pleasure, one also learns about its limitations and how it stands in relation to other forms of happiness. One is then able to pursue more refined kinds of happiness. Moreover, the way one deals with happiness and unhappiness is directly linked to ethical matters.

The sense bases and their relationship to both the cognitive process and to wisdom development are linked to virtuous conduct from the very start. If one acts incorrectly from the beginning, the entire cognitive process is tainted. The process then caters to the consumption of material things, or it becomes an aspect of the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-vaṭṭa). This leads to a distorted, biased, clouded, or incorrect understanding. The supportive practice in this context is to establish the mind in equanimity, to keep it even-keeled and impartial, not dominated by likes and dislikes, preferences and aversions.

There are many other practical teachings referring to the sense bases, either directly or indirectly. They are related to different stages of spiritual practice, and they focus on specific problems, say of suffering or unwholesome tendencies, that have the potential to arise on different occasions.

To prevent problems from arising, the teachings reiterate caution and restraint at the initial stage of cognition, when a sense object comes into contact with a sense base. This is the safest course of action.

In the case that problems have already arisen and unskilful mind states have infiltrated the mind, this is difficult to remedy. If one allows enticing and alluring sense objects to take hold of the mind, and one falls under the sway of greed, hatred, and delusion, one may not be able to resist these enticements, and one ends up performing immoral, unwholesome deeds. This is true even if one has a basic awareness of right and wrong. This is the reason such emphasis is given to taking precautions and protecting oneself from the beginning.

A vital spiritual factor for establishing this care and protection is mindfulness (sati), which helps to anchor the mind. Mindfulness is like a rope which holds and sustains attention. Mindfulness used at this initial stage of care and protection while receiving sense impressions is connected to the principle of ’sense restraint’ (indriya-saṁvara), which is also referred to as ’guarding the sense doors (gutta-dvāra)’.52 Here, mindfulness is fully prepared to receive a sense impression, for example when seeing a visual form by way of the eye. One does not allow attention to fix on those signs and features that give rise to infatuations and resentments, preferences and aversions, and that allow unwholesome states to over-whelm the mind. Sense restraint prevents wrongdoing, wards off suffering, and averts distorted understanding.

Using this principle of sense restraint effectively is not a simple act of will, however. For mindfulness to be well established, fully prepared, and constant, it must be trained and developed. Sense restraint must be repeated, exercised, and continuously applied. This is the meaning of the term indriya-bhāvanā: ’cultivating the sense faculties’. {58}

Those individuals who have cultivated the sense faculties are safe from unwholesome states, from suffering, and from distorted understanding.53 They are able to prevent these negative qualities from arising. Even if preferences and aversions manage to slip in, they are able to quell them or cast them aside instantly.

Sense restraint (indriya-saṁvara) is classified as part of the stage of morality (sīla). The essential factor of mindfulness (sati) applied for such sense restraint, however, is classified as part of the stage of ’concentration’ (samādhi). The practice of mindfulness involves constantly channelling the power of the mind and balancing attention, which thus also results in the development of concentration.

Another spiritual factor emphasized in this context is wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra), which is classified as part of wisdom (paññā). This factor is applied when one has already received a sense object, at which point one contemplates it in order to fully understand it. One contemplates the advantages and disadvantages of various objects, along with the state of freedom and wellbeing, in which one is not dependent on them. The positive and negative aspects of conditioned phenomena then do not determine our happiness or our fate. {59}

Appendix 1: Three Kinds of Wisdom

In truth, there is only one kind of wisdom, that is, the natural phenomenon of understanding reality, of penetrating into the truth of things as they really are. Wisdom, however, is frequently separated into many different kinds, according to the level of wisdom, to its specific function, or to the specific source of understanding.

The three kinds of wisdom here refer to a classification connected to the source of understanding:

  1. Sutamaya-paññā: wisdom stemming from listening, reading, and learning.

  2. Cintāmaya-paññā: wisdom stemming from reflection and contemplation.

  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: wisdom stemming from further spiritual cultivation.

These three kinds of wisdom are only seldom mentioned in the Tipiṭaka, but they are frequently referred to in later texts. Because there is some confusion about the meaning of these terms, it is useful to examine some of the scriptural explanations.

In most presentations of these three kinds of wisdom, sutamaya-paññā is placed as the first factor, but in the original texts, both in the suttas54 and in the Abhidhamma,55 cintāmaya-paññā comes first. An exception to this is the Nettipakaraṇa, which in the Burmese Theravada tradition is included in the Tipiṭaka (as part of the Khuddaka Nikāya in the Suttanta Piṭaka); here, sutamaya-paññā is the first factor.56 In the commentaries and sub-commentaries, these three factors are increasingly referred to as: sutamaya-ñāṇa, cintāmaya-ñāṇa, and bhāvanāmaya-ñāṇa (’knowledge’, arising by way of study, contemplation, and spiritual cultivation, respectively).

This is the order that they are presented in the original Tipiṭaka:

  1. Cintāmaya-paññā: wisdom arising from contemplation; wisdom arising from wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra) established within an individual.

  2. Sutamaya-paññā: wisdom arising from learning; wisdom arising from the instruction by others (paratoghosa).

  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: wisdom arising from spiritual practice; wisdom arising from applying the previous two kinds of wisdom and engaging in devoted reflection and meditation.

The discrepancy between having either sutamaya-paññā or cintāmaya-paññā as the first of the three factors depends on whether the focus is primarily on exceptional individuals, or whether it is on the practice by general, ordinary individuals.

In the case where cintāmaya-paññā is placed first, the examination begins with an individual referred to as a ’great man’ (mahāpurisa), that is, with the Buddha (or with a ’Silent Buddha’ – paccekabuddha). Such a person has discovered and revealed the truth without relying on the instructions and teachings by others. He is able to apply wise reflection himself, investigating, linking, and following up on experiences in a comprehensive way, until he fathoms the truth. From cintāmaya-paññā, he moves directly to bhāvanāmaya-paññā (he needs not rely at all on sutamaya-paññā).

When the focus is on ordinary people, however, sutamaya-paññā is placed at the beginning. Generally speaking, people study and obtain formal knowledge, teachings, and information, which rouses faith and confidence. They examine and inspect these teachings, leading to an understanding of them, which is referred to as sutamaya-paññā. Based on this formal learning, they evaluate and contemplate it deeper, giving rise to a clear discernment of causality and of the interrelationship of things. This is cintāmaya-paññā. When they actively and determinedly apply these two initial kinds of wisdom and further investigate phenomena, knowledge (ñāṇa) arises and they realize the truth. Here the path (magga) gives rise to fruition (phala). This stage is referred to as bhāvanāmaya-paññā. {60}

Note that for many people, although they obtain a great deal of information (suta), they do not necessarily develop wisdom (paññā). So in regard to the first factor, only some individuals apply their learning to give rise to wisdom comprised of learning (sutamaya-paññā).

In the Vibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma, bhāvanāmaya-paññā is defined as samāpannassa-paññā, which literally means the ’wisdom of one who endeavours’ or the ’wisdom of one who has reached fulfilment’. (The term samāpanna may be variously translated as ’accompanying’, ’endeavouring’, ’completion’, or ’fulfilment’. It can be used in both a positive and a negative sense, for example: ’accomplished in the rules of training’; ’related to going forth (pabbajjā)’; ’full of envy and greed’; ’engaging in enjoyment and play’; ’accompanied by sorrow and lamentation’; ’brimful with a swift flowing current’.

In the context of Dhamma teachings, however, when this term is used on its own, it generally refers to accessing the concentrative attainments (jhāna-samāpatti). The commentary to the Vibhaṅga explains: ’The wisdom of one endowed with the concentrative attainments, and occurring within such attainments, is called “consisting of cultivation”.’57 This appears to be a very narrow definition. Other texts, however, including the Paramatthamañjusā, explain that the aforementioned definition is only an example. The essential meaning of the term bhāvanāmaya-paññā focuses on a clear discernment of the truth, which refers to ’Path wisdom’ (magga-paññā) operative within insight meditation (vipassanā).

There exists an explanation of bhāvanāmaya-paññā in the texts that encompasses the concentrative attainments, yet spans a broader range of meaning. This explanation considers the term appanā (’absorption’), which refers to the concentration lying at the heart of jhāna. One example from the Visuddhimagga states: ’Wisdom achieved by the power of cultivation reaching absorption is called “endowed with cultivation”.’58 This explanation is linked to the passage above, referring to diligent contemplation of all phenomena, which is equivalent to insight meditation (vipassanā). When insight wisdom (vipassanā-paññā) reaches an adequate degree of clarity, the mind reaches concentrative absorption (i.e. jhāna). This clear discernment and steady, focused attention is able to purify and eliminate those festering and constrictive qualities known as the defilements (kilesa). The mind is thus released from some or all of these defilements. This realization which brings about such transformation is bhāvanāmaya-paññā, equivalent to ’Path knowledge’ (magga-ñāṇa).

In the Nettipakaraṇa, these three kinds of wisdom are linked to the classification of the four kinds of individuals. Here, the spiritual assets of the first three kinds of individuals, those who are ’trainable’ (veneyya), are examined, before these individuals advance to bhāvanāmaya-paññā. Those people endowed with both sutamaya-paññā and cintāmaya-paññā are called ’of quick understanding’ (ugghaṭitaññū): they understand instantly; they gain insight by even hearing a single outline of a teaching. Those endowed only with sutamaya-paññā are called vipacitaññū: they understand when they are given an explanation. Those individuals devoid of both of these kinds of wisdom are neyya: those who should be guided with teachings and training in order to gain understanding. Those who have not reached the stage of neyya and are padaparama (’one whose highest attainment is the word’) are not included here.

Compiling these various references, one may summarize this subject of the three kinds of wisdom as follows:

Those exceptional individuals (acchariya-puggala), comprising the Buddhas and the Silent Buddhas, are true sages; their wisdom surpasses that of other people. Ordinary people live in specific environments and have various experiences for decades, centuries, and generations, and yet their knowledge and understanding remains limited. A Buddha arises, however, and he is able to apply wise reflection and see things from a perspective that others are unable to see. Through investigation he is able to penetrate the profound underlying truth of things, gain an intuition into things that others do not recognize, make new discoveries, develop new understanding, and finally access a truth that no one else has realized.

The wisdom arising from one’s own ability to apply wise reflection is referred to as cintāmaya-paññā, which the Buddhas and Silent Buddhas possess, without needing to rely on the instructions by others. (Indeed, no one exists who would be able to provide them with such instruction.) This is the wisdom unique to such exceptional people. They are able to pass over the initial stage of sutamaya-paññā. If such unique individuals endowed with cintāmaya-paññā do not arise, revolutionary discoveries of truth and the breaking out of the limitations of wisdom are not possible. People then simply pass on their traditional yet restricted knowledge.

Ordinary people, who do not possess cintāmaya-paññā derived entirely from their own ability to apply wise reflection, must rely on the teachings and instructions by others. The starting point for them is generating sutamaya-paññā. {61}

Ordinary people must develop all three kinds of wisdom:

  1. Sutamaya-paññā: knowledge derived from formal learning. When one is not yet able to rely entirely on one own reflective abilities, one must seek out a teacher, who in the scriptures is referred to as a virtuous friend (kalyāṇamitta), for example the Buddha, awakened beings, and other wise individuals, for instruction and guidance. One is then able to comprehend the truth at one level.

  2. Cintāmaya-paññā: knowledge derived from reflection, from the ability to contemplate. When one acquires knowledge from formal learning and generates wisdom consisting of such knowledge (sutamaya-paññā), one trains in wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra), leading to vast, profound, and thorough understanding, which can be applied in one’s investigation of the truth.

  3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: knowledge derived from spiritual cultivation. This re-fers to practical application, whereby one acts from direct experience. Here, one relies on the first two kinds of wisdom and furthers one’s spiritual devel-opment by applying wise reflection in regard to all phenomena, until one realizes the wisdom established as the Path (magga) and one attains fruition (phala).

Note here that bhāvanāmaya-paññā relies and follows on from sutamaya-paññā and cintāmaya-paññā. One does not spontaneously generate bhāvanāmaya-paññā without a basis of knowledge, or access it simply by sitting in meditation and attaining the jhānas. Most people are not even able to generate cintāmaya-paññā without a foundation of formal learning (suta). (And as mentioned earlier, many people acquire formal learning but do not transform it into wisdom – sutamaya-paññā.)

Wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra) is the chief agent in this process. One can say that it is the essential factor in the development of all three kinds of wisdom. This is true even for those exceptional individuals like the Buddha, who begin with cintāmaya-paññā, without requiring formal instruction from others (paratoghosa). A Buddha begins with an inherent and exceptional talent for wise reflection, giving rise to profound wisdom. Ordinary people apply formal learning and then contemplate phenomena in order to grow in wisdom, until they develop bhāvanāmaya-paññā, at which stage wise reflection truly comes to the fore.

As mentioned above, this threefold division of wisdom is found only seldom in the Tipiṭaka. Ven. Sāriputta presented this classification in order to highlight the sources by which wisdom arises.

The factor constantly emphasized by the Buddha is wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra), which is the means of practice by which wisdom is generated. When wise reflection is present, these three kinds of wisdom may arise and reach fulfilment.

In sum, of those people who receive information and external knowledge:

  • Some people only acquire facts and information, without developing any sort of wisdom.

  • Some people are able to contemplate and examine that information, and generate sutamaya-paññā.

  • Some people establish sutamaya-paññā, and then reflect and inquire further, generating cintāmaya-paññā.

  • Some people rely on sutamaya-paññā and cintāmaya-paññā as a basis, and then develop wisdom further through wise reflection, generating bhāvanāmaya-paññā. {62}

Appendix 2: Commentarial Analysis of the Sense Spheres

The commentators provide many different nuances of meaning for this term āyatana, including: the point of transmission for the mind (citta) and mental concomitants (cetasika), i.e. the locus of their active engagement; the point of expansion for the mind and mental concomitants; the agents behind the continuation of the protracted suffering in the round of rebirth (saṁsāra-dukkha); the source; the domain; the point of convergence; etc.59

Note that the internal physical senses pertaining to movement, balance, etc., which are referred to as somesthesia (kinesthetic, vestibular, and visceral senses), are not added here as additional senses (āyatana). Although these additional senses are not explained in the scriptures, it is reasonable that they were excluded because some of their aspects are included in the fifth sense, referred to as ’body’ (kāya). More importantly, however, these additional senses function exclusively on a physiological level, by maintaining a normal physical state of operation; they have unique attributes and are confined to the inner life of human beings. Although they are necessary supports, their value is fixed; they are unable to promote increased benefits in regard to awareness and experience of the world, to knowledge and understanding, or to ethics. For this reason, they are not included in the definition and context of āyatana.

Appendix 3: The Six Sense Spheres and the Five Aggregates

All six internal sense bases (āyatana) are incorporated in the five aggregates; there are exceptions to this, however, in regard to the six external sense objects (āyatana):

The first five pairs of āyatana (cakkhu-rūpa, sota-sadda, ghāna-gandha, jivhā-rasa, and kāya-phoṭṭhabba) are part of the rūpa-khandha.

The sixth internal āyatana (mano; the mind) is part of the viññāṇa-khandha.

The sixth external āyatana (dhamma; dhammāyatana) are part of four aggregates: three kinds of nāma-khandha (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra) and the rūpa-khandha, in particular those refined material forms (sukhuma-rūpa), e.g.: the element of space (ākāsa-dhātu), femininity, masculinity, levity, flexibility, continuation, decay, expansion, physical transformation, etc. The exception here is Nibbāna, which transcends the five aggregates (khandha-vinimutta).60


On the commentarial analysis of the sense spheres see Appendix 2.


Normally, the term dvāra is paired with ārammaṇa, and the term ’internal āyatana’ is paired with ’external āyatana’. In this exposition, however, the internal sense spheres will be referred to as āyatana, and the external sense objects as ārammaṇa.


To avoid confusion, these mental objects are usually referred to as dhammārammaṇa, instead of simply dhamma, which is a term used in many different contexts and which has multiple nuances of meaning.


M. I. 258-9.


M. I. 190.


Six kinds of feeling (vedanā): cakkhu-samphassajā vedanā, sota-samphassajā vedanā, ghāna-samphassajā vedanā, jivhā-samphassajā vedanā, kāya-samphassajā vedanā, and mano-samphassajā vedanā (S. IV. 232).


Note that upekkhā in this context of vedanā differs from upekkhā in the context of volitional formations (saṅkhāra), e.g.: upekkhā-brahmavihāra, upekkhā-sambojjhaṅga, etc.


’Turning away’ (vivaṭṭa) pertains to solving life’s problems, and will be discussed in section IV: ’Goal of Life’ and section VI: ’A Worthy Life’.


On the relationship between the six sense spheres and the five aggregates see Appendix 3.


See: D. II. 277-8.


See the appendix in Chapter 1.


This is ’perception by way of the five sense doors’ (pañcadvārika-saññā): perception of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibles (see: MA. IV. 20). The subsequent kinds of perception (below) are exclusively perception by way of the mind-door.


An example of perception resulting from mental conceptualization: ’When he is established in supreme perception (the most subtle and refined perception = ākiñcaññāyatana) it occurs to him: “Thinking and deliberating is worse for me, lack of thought and deliberation is better. If I were to think and conceptualize, these perceptions [that I have attained] would cease, and coarser perceptions would arise in me. Suppose I were not to think or conceptualize?” (D. I. 184-5).


E.g.: MA. II. 74; SA. II. 382.


Trans: arahant: a fully awakened person.


See: M. III. 108.


For a detailed classification of the various kinds of wisdom (paññā), see: Vism. 438-42. For more on this subject of wisdom, see chapter 16: ’Path Factors of Wisdom’.


According to the Abhidhamma, wisdom (paññā), faith (saddhā), view (diṭṭhi), and delusion (moha) are ’mental concomitants’ (cetasika) and are classified as part of the volitional formation aggregate (see: Comp.: Cetasikaparicchedo). For the reasoning behind this classification, see Chapter 1.


For more on the subject of faith (saddhā), see Chapter 14.


Terms related to diṭṭhi include: abhinivesa (’adherence’), parāmāsa (’taking hold’), and upādāna (’grasping’, which on a deeper level is conditioned by craving – taṇhā); see: Vbh. 149.


E.g.: Vbh. 124, 250.


See: Ps. I. 23.


See: A. III. 447; cf.: A. IV. 352-3, 358; Ud. 37; Ps. I. 57-8, 78, etc. Perception that is a bhāvetabba-dhamma – something to be cultivated – is sometimes referred to as perception conducive to knowledge (vijjābhāgiya-saññā; see: A. III. 334), perception conducive to eliminating defilement (nibbedhabhāgiya-sañña; see: SA. II. 392), wholesome perception (kusala-saññā), or unimpaired perception (aviparīta-saññā; for the last two terms see: Nett. 126).


See previous footnote.


Consciousness (viññāṇa) is a pariññeyya-dhamma, wisdom (paññā) is a bhāvetabba-dhamma; see: M. I. 292.


See, e.g.: S. III. 59-60, 63-4; S. IV. 68-9; A. III. 413; A. IV. 338-9, 385; Ps. I. 57.


Knowledge obtained by ’mind-contact’ (mano-samphassa).


Vbh. 71-72; Dhs. 169; Vism. 483-4.


Comp.: Pakiṇṇakaparicchedo, Ālambaṇasaṅgaho; CompṬ.: Pakiṇṇakaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Ālambaṇasaṅgahavaṇṇanā.


This classification is found frequently; important passages include: S. IV. 73; Vbh. 429; Nd. I. 55. See also: D. III. 135 = A. II. 23-4; A. II. 25 = It. 121-22; M. I. 135-6; M. III. 261; S. III. 202-203; A. V. 318, 353-8; A. V. 321-22. Found as compound words at: M. II. 231-32; Sn. 209-210; Nd. I. 9, 50-51, 53-4, 133-4, 189-90, 203-204, 227, 245, 247, 333-4; Nd. II. 16. As a threefold classification of diṭṭhi, suta and muta, e.g.: S. I. 202-203; Sn. 155, 175-6; Nd. I. 95-6, 106, 110-11, 315; Nd. II. 28.


The eye (cakkhu) and the ear (sota) cognize objects that have ’not reached (the sense bases)’: appattavisayaggāhika/appattagāhika. The nose (ghāna), tongue (jivhā), and body (kāya) cognize objects that ’reach (the sense bases)’: sampattavisayaggāhika/sampattagāhika. See: Comp.: Rūpaparicchedo, Rūpavibhāgo; CompṬ.: Rūpaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Rūpavibhāgavaṇṇanā; VismṬ.: Khandhaniddesavaṇṇanā, Rūpakkhandakathāvaṇṇanā.


CompṬ.: Cetasikaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Akusalacetasikavaṇṇanā outlines this distinction between diṭṭhi and ñāṇa: ’An attribute of diṭṭhi is the belief: “Only this is true; all else is invalid.” Ñāṇa knows things objectively; diṭṭhi forsakes the objective truth and apprehends things subjectively.’


cf. UdA. 373, which states: ’Saññā is the nimitta (’sign’; ’point of origin’) of proliferative view (diṭṭhi-papañca).


See: M. I. 326-9.


Compare with this passage from the Pali Canon: ’Whoever speculates by relying on the view of existence (bhava-diṭṭhi) and the view of non-existence (vibhava-diṭṭhi) is devoid of knowledge of cessation, [and] this is the cause for human beings to harbour perverted views (saññā-viparīta)’; see: Ps. I. 159.


D. III. 219-20; Vbh. 324-5.


These supplementary factors are found dispersed throughout the scriptures. Many of them are mentioned as supports for realizing truth at M. II. 174.


This classification accords with: Sn. 164-5 and Sn. 207-208; explicated at Nd. I. 187-8 and Nd. II. 26. These references are in verse form, and these three factors are listed in the order of diṭṭhi, suti and ñāṇa. Here, they have been reorganized to accord with the preceding section (C).


See chapter 13, on the preliminary stage of spiritual training (factor #1: virtuous friendship).


E.g.: Nd. I. 64-5, 105, 162, 169-70, 310-11. The most frequent grouping of these terms is that of diṭṭhi, khanti and ruci, e.g.: Vin. I. 69-70; it occurs in many passages of the Mahāniddesa. These three terms are sometimes accompanied by the terms ajjhāsaya (’preference’) and adhippāya (’purpose’, ’opinion’), e.g.: Nd. I. 64-5; Nd. II. 43, 50. The largest collection of these synonyms includes: diṭṭhi, khanti, ruci, ādāya (’accepted belief’), dhamma-vinaya (’doctrine and discipline’), pāvacana (’fundamental teaching’), brahmacariya (’supreme teaching’), and satthu-sāsana (’teaching of the Master’), e.g.: Nd. I. 40, 156; Nd. II. 9, 20; Vbh. 245-6 (in these cases the reference is to Buddhism).


This concept of the two levels of truth began to take shape as a clear notion in the Kathāvatthu, although this text does not yet provide a clear distinction of terms. The term sammati-sacca is mentioned at Kvu. 311, whereas the terms sacchikattha-paramattha (’real and absolute’) and paramattha are mentioned at Kvu. 1-69. A clear description and distinction of these terms occurs at PañcA. 12, 84. They are mentioned in many other sources, e.g.: MA. I. 217 = SA. II. 13; DhA. III. 403; [Saṅganī Mūlaṭīkā: 165, 280]; [Saṅgaṇī Anuṭīkā: 328]; VismṬ.: Brahmavihāraniddesavaṇṇanā, Pakiṇṇakakathāvaṇṇanā; UdA. 396; ItA. I. 162; CompṬ.: Paccayaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Paññattibhedavaṇṇanā.[Trans.: In the Dictionary of Buddhism, in the alphabetical list of Pali terms at the end of the book, the venerable author acknowledges both spellings of sammati and sammuti as valid. In the main text of the dictionary, however, he only uses sammati, e.g.: sammati-sacca, sammati-desanā, etc. In his Dictionary of Buddhist Terminology (Thai edition only), he only provides the spelling of sammati. Moreover, in Sir Monier Monier-Williams’s A Sanskrit English Dictionary, only sammati is provided. Although the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary greatly favors sammuti (it includes sammata as a past participle), and has no mention of sammati, I decided to go exclusively with sammati in this book.]


VinA. I. 21; DA. I. 19; DhsA. 21, 56; MA. I. 217 = SA. 13.


Trans: the author uses the Thai version of this story, of a rabbit who panics after hearing a coconut fall on the ground, thinking the world is coming to an end.


In the Abhidhamma vipallāsa is referred to as vipariyesa (Vbh. 376; this alternative term has its source in the suttas, at S. I. 188-9; cf.: SA. I. 271; NdA. I. 163; DhsA. 253). At VinṬ.: Dutiyapārājikaṃ, Verañjakaṇḍavaṇṇanā, it states that these three aberrations are placed in order of power, from weaker to stronger.


See Chapter 15 on the preliminary stage of spiritual practice (factor #2: wise reflection).


’The all’ = ’everything’, ’entirety’.


Trans: the ’sensed’: tastes, odours, and tangibles.


The commentaries explain: ’one is not dominated by greed, hatred, and delusion’.


The commentaries explain: ’one is not caught up in the seen, etc’.


There will be neither this existence (bhava), another existence, or an existence between the two.


At S. IV. 198-200, the questions are posed: ’How is there non-restraint’ and ’How is there restraint?’; the reply is the same as above.


In full, this is called: ’guarding the sense doors in regard to the sense faculties’ (indriyesu gutta-dvāra).


In regard to being safe from distorted understanding, in this context it refers only to new sources of such distortions; it does not refer to previously accumulated factors such as craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), or view (diṭṭhi), which pertain to another stage of spiritual practice.


D. III. 219-20.


Vbh. 310.


In this text the terms are also spelled slightly differently, as: sutamayī-paññā, cintāmayī-paññā, and bhāvanāmayī-paññā.


VbhA. 412.


Vism. 439.


See: Vism. 481-2; CompṬ.: Samuccayaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Sabbasaṅgahavaṇṇanā.


See: Vbh. 70-72.