Indriya and Āyatana – Big Difference

May 7, 2016; revised December 4, 2017

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 “āyatana“.

  • The physical sense faculties are referred to as indriya.
  • But those indriya CAN BE used as āyatana 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 āyatana.

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, gati, 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 āyatana. In simplest terms,  indriya become  āyatana when we deliberately use the indriya to accumulate abhisaṅkhāra.

  • Another way to state the difference is to say that when kamma vipāka 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 āyatana.
  • 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 cakkāyatana.

  • If we eat something to quench the hunger, and just experience the taste of it, then we are using the tongue as jivhā 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  jivhāyatana.
  • 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 kāya indriya. But hitting (or walking to hit) another person involves using the body as an āyatana (kāyātana).
  • A teacher speaking to students is using the body as  kāya indriya (does not involve abhisaṅkhāra), but telling a lie or a gossip involves kāyātana (does involve abhisaṅkhāra).
  • 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 āyatana (or manāyatana).

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.

  • Cakkhāyatana could come into play when that information is sent by the brain to the cakkhu pasada rūpa and is processed by the hadaya vatthu (mind). Based on the personal character (gati) of the person, that person may generate greed or hate towards that visual. Then cakkāyatana (and possibly more other āyatana) may be used to take further actions.
  • The cakkhāyatana never arises in an Arahant, because there is no anusaya or āsava (defilements) remaining that can trigger greed or hate, i.e., there are no kāma gati, rāga gati, dōsa gati, mōha gati, 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,  āyatana are MENTAL.

  • The six  āyatana (the six are collectively called “salāyatana)  may be created at a given moment depending on the situation and also depending on the gati of the particular person.
  • In the “Idappaccayātā Paṭicca Samuppāda“, salāyatana arise via, “nāma rūpa paccayā salāyatana“. When we trace steps backwards, we see that nāma rūpa arise via “viññāna paccayā nāma rūpa“. Going further back, “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna”, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra”. Thus salāyatana arise as a series of mental actions starting with avijjā.
  • When one of the six indriya brings in a sense input, that sense input MAY induce greed or hate due to avijjā and through the above series of Paṭicca Samuppāda steps to CREATE one or more of the salāyatana to arise.

8. Thus our indriya do not change from moment-to-moment, but āyatana 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 cakkāyatana 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 (āsava, anusaya) for a drink to come to the mind. Then acting with avijjā, at least two of the six āyatana arose in his mind: thinking about having a drink (manāyatana), walking inside and ordering a drink (kāyātana).
  • 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 salāyatana for them.
  • This is why even in a normal human, the sense faculties do not work as  āyatana 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 āyatana, 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 bhāvanā“.  It simply means making sure that the indriya do not become āyatana.

  • 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 āyatana. 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 āyatana other than the cakkhāyatana 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 bhāvanā” is nothing but special application of the Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā. In fact, “indriya bhāvanā” 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 āyatana 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 āsava  in us or we don’t have the gati 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.

These mind-made pleasures experienced with āyatana are called assāda (or āsvāda in Sinhala). For an in-depth analysis, see, “Assāda, Ādīnava, Nissarana“.

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