Sadayatana: The Six Sense Organs and Their Objects

Understanding Sadayatana Is Key to Learning Other Buddhist Teachings

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You could think of sadayatana (Sanskrit; the Pali is salayatana) as a proposition about our sense organs work. This proposition may not seem very important by itself, but understanding sadayatana is key to understanding many other Buddhist teachings.

Sadayatana refers to the six sense organs and their objects. First, let's look at what the Buddha meant by the "six sense organs." They are:

  1. Eye
  2. Ear
  3. Nose
  4. Tongue
  5. Skin
  6. Intellect (manas)

That last one requires explanation, but it's important. First, the Sanskrit word being translated as intellect is manas.

Western philosophy tends to separate intellect from sense perception. Our ability to learn, reason, and apply logic is placed on a special pedestal and honored as the most important thing about humans that sets us apart from the animal kingdom. But here we're asked to think of intellect as just another sense organ, like our eyes or nose.

The Buddha was not opposed to applying reason; indeed, he often used reason himself. But intellect can impose a kind of blindness. It can create false beliefs, for example. I'll say more about that later.

The six organs or faculties are linked to six sense objects, which are:

  1. Visible object
  2. Sound
  3. Odor
  4. Taste
  5. Touch
  6. Mental object

What is a mental object? Lots of things. Thoughts are mental objects, for example. In the Buddhist Abhidharma, all phenomena, material and immaterial, are considered to be mental objects. The Five Hindrances are mental objects.

In his book "Understanding Our Mind: 50 Versus on Buddhist Psychology" (Parallax Press, 2006), Thich Nhat Hanh wrote,

Consciousness always includes
subject and object.
Self and other, inside and outside,
are all creations of the conceptual mind.

Buddhism teaches that manas imposes a conceptual veil or filter on top of reality, and we mistake that conceptual veil for reality. It's a rare thing to perceive reality directly, without filters. The Buddha taught that our dissatisfaction and problems arise because we don't perceive the true nature of reality.

How the Organs and Objects Function

The Buddha said that the organs and objects work together to manifest consciousness. There can be no consciousness without an object.

Thich Nhat Hanh stressed that there is nothing called "seeing," for example, that is separate from what is seen. "When our eyes contact form and color, an instant of eye consciousness is produced," he wrote. If the contact continues, for instants of eye consciousness arise.

These instants of eye consciousness may be linked into a river of consciousness, in which the subject and object support each other. "Just as a river is composed of drops of water and the drops of water are the content of the river itself, so the mental formations are both the content of consciousness and consciousness itself," Thich Nhat Hanh wrote.

Please note that there's nothing "bad" about enjoying our senses. The Buddha warned us to not attach to them. We see something beautiful, and this leads to a craving for it. Or we see something ugly and want to avoid it. Either way, our equanimity becomes unbalanced. But "beautiful" and "ugly" are just mental formations.

The Links of Dependent Origination

Dependent Origination is the Buddhist teaching on how things come to be, are, and cease to be. According to this teaching, no beings or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena.

The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination are the linked events, so to speak, that keep us in the cycle of samsara. Sadayatana, our organs, and objects, are the fifth link in the chain.

This is a complicated teaching, but as simply as I can state it: Ignorance (avidya) of the true nature of reality gives rise to samskara, volitional formations. We become attached to our ignorance understanding of reality. This gives rise vijnana, awareness, which leads to nama-rupa, name, and form. Nama-rupa marks the joining of the Five Skandhas into an individual existence. The next link is sadayatana, and coming after that is sparsha, or contact with the environment.

The twelfth link is old age and death, but karma connects that link back to avidya. And around and around it goes.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Sadayatana: The Six Sense Organs and Their Objects." Learn Religions, Sep. 10, 2021, O'Brien, Barbara. (2021, September 10). Sadayatana: The Six Sense Organs and Their Objects. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Sadayatana: The Six Sense Organs and Their Objects." Learn Religions. (accessed March 28, 2023).