Indriya and Ayatana – Big Difference

May 7, 2016

1.We have lived in this world of 31 realms forever, because we like to enjoy sense contacts. By understanding how we actually experience these sense contacts, we will be able to see their true nature.

  • In English language, we speak about the five physical senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body. We also talk about the mind that is supposed to “reside” in the physical brain, which is supposed to process signals from the five senses and generate “consciousness” or awareness of the external world.
  • Above is the conventionally and scientifically accepted theory, especially in the Western World, but mostly in the Eastern World as well.
  • In Buddha Dhamma, it is important to realize that our sense faculties have two aspects: physical and mental.

2. Thus there are two versions of sense faculties in Buddha Dhamma: “indriya” and “äyatana“.

  • The physical sense faculties are referred to as indriya.
  • But those indriya CAN BE used as äyatana depending on the situation. We will discuss the difference.
  • Furthermore, we will also discuss how we literally “create our own future” by using our sense faculties as not merely as indriya but as äyatana.

3. The five physical senses or the “indriya” are simply “physical instruments” mounted on our physical bodies to extract information (vision, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches) from the external physical world.

  • In addition, per Buddha Dhamma,there is a another  indriya (manindriya) to receive dhamma (concepts, gathi, and bhava are synonyms) from the external world. This “mana indriya” or manindriya is  located inside the brain, and has not yet been identified by science.
  • This has been is discussed in detail in, “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis“.

4. Now let us see how these indriya can become äyatana. In simplest terms,  indriya become  äyatana when we deliberately use the indriya to accumulate abhisankhara.

  • Another way to state the difference is to say that when kamma vipaka brings us sense inputs, the sense faculties act as  indriyaFollowing that we MAY deliberately use sense faculties to generate new kamma; then they work as ayatana.
  • Let us consider some examples to illustrate the difference.

5. When we just happen to see a nice house (say, while walking), our eyes were used as cakkhu indriya. But if we like that house and stop and keep looking at it (while making an attachment for it), then we are using our eyes as cakkayatana.

  • If we eat something to quench the hunger, and experience the taste of it, then we are using the tongue as jivha indriya. But if we form an attachment to it (and thinking about making some more to enjoy the taste again later), then the tongue is used as  jivhayatana.
  • When we walk to the  bathroom to take a shower (which is something we need to do to stay clean) that involves using the body as käya indriya. But hitting (or walking to hit) another person involves using the body as an äyatana (kayatana).
  • A teacher speaking to students is using the body as  käya indriya (does not involve abhisankhara), but telling a lie or a gossip involves kayatana (does involve abhisankhara).
  • When we are using the mind to remember a forgotten address, we are using the mana indriya (or manindriya). But when  fantasizing about a sexual encounter, that involves mana ayatana (or manayatana).

6. Another simple way to look at this distinction is to consider the cakkhu indriya as a totally mechanical device (just like a camera) that just helps to get the image to the brain.

  • Cakkhayatana could come into play when that information is sent by the brain to the cakkhu pasada rupa and is processed by the hadaya vatthu (mind). Based on the personal character (gathi) of the person, that person may generate greed or hate towards that visual. Then cakkayatana (and possibly more other ayatana) may be used to take further actions.
  • The cakkhayatana never arises in an Arahant, because there is no anusaya or asava (defilements) remaining that can trigger greed or hate, i.e., there are no kama gathi, raga gathi, dosa gathi, moha gathi, etc left.
  • The same kind of analysis can be done on any other sense faculty.

7. Now we can also look at this from a different angle and see that while indriya can be considered as PHYSICAL devices that help “extract sense signals” from the outside world,  äyatana are MENTAL.

  • The six  äyatana (the six are collectively called “saläyatana”)  may be created at a given moment depending on the situation and also depending on the gathi of the particular person.
  • In the “Akusala-Mula Pavutti (or Pravurthi) Paticca Samuppada“, salayatana arise via, “nama rupa paccaya salayatana”. When we trace steps backwards, we see that nama rupa arise via “vinnana paccaya nama rupa“. Going further back, “sankhara paccaya vinnana”, “avijja paccaya sankhara”. Thus saläyatana arise as a series of mental actions starting with avijja.
  • When one of the six indriya brings in a sense input, that sense input MAY induce greed or hate due to avijja and through the above series of paticca samuppada steps to CREATE one or more of the salayatana to arise.

8. Thus our indriya do not change from moment-to-moment, but äyatana do.

  • For example, our eyes (cakkhu indriya) may not change significantly for years; of course an accident can instantly change them or they can degrade with old age.
  • But cakkayatana change from moment-to-moment. We can be instantly attracted to an eye-pleasing object.

9. In another example, suppose an alcoholic is walking around inside an airport waiting for a flight. If he sees a bar, he may decide to stop and take a good look at it, think about for a minute and just go in to have a drink.

  • The initial sense input (seeing the bar with cakkhu indriya), triggered his deeply-ingrained craving (asava, anusaya) for a drink to come to the mind. Then acting with avijja, at least two of the six äyatana arose in his mind: thinking about having a drink (manayatana), walking inside and ordering a drink (käyätana).
  • Many other people saw the same bar, totally disregarded it and kept walking. The sense input from the cakkhu indriya did not lead to the arising of any of the saläyatana for them.
  • This is why even in a normal human, the sense faculties do not work as  äyatana all the time.

10. If we live in this world, we have to use the sense faculties in order to live; here we use them as indriya.

  • But when we use them as ayatana, we are in a sense making future bhava (especially if those actions are strong).

11. Now we can also figure out what is really meant by the “indriya bhävanä“.  It simply means making sure that the indriya do not become äyatana.

  • Of course, we need to focus on the most egregious acts first. For example, when one sees an eye-catching object in a shop, stopping there and thinking about how nice it would be to be able to take it home is making ayatana. But that is hard to avoid for a normal human who has not yet attained a magga phala.
  • However, if the attraction to the object becomes strong, that could lead to ayatana other than the cakkyatana come into play: one may decide to steal it. This is of course far too dangerous. As soon as that mindset comes to play, one has to think about the consequences and forcefully stop it.
  • Thus  “indriya bhävanä” is nothing but special application of the Satipattana bhavana. In fact, “indriya bhävanä” is to be practiced not in a “sitting down” meditation session, but while one is doing normal  day-to-day activities.

12. Thus only Arahants use their sense faculties as indriya ALL THE TIME. They do not form attachments to body touches, tastes, odors, sounds (music), pictures, or any type of concepts (thoughts).

  • Even a normal human does not use eyes as ayatana all the time. We may see numerous things even during a short walk. Most of the things we see we just ignore, because they don’t interest us. This is another way of saying that those things don’t trigger any anusaya or asava  in us or we don’t have the gathi to form a liking for them.

13. Finally, it must be noted that there are other types of indriya that come into play in different contexts.

  • For example, “panca indriya” in 37 Factors of Enlightenment refer to very different types of indriya: sati, samadhi, panna, viriya and saddha; see, “37 Factors of Enlightenment” and “Two Versions of 37 Factors of Enlightenment“.
  • There are five indriya in “panca indriya“, whereas there are six indriya in reference to sense faculties.
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