Indriya and Āyatana – Big Difference

Āyatana has no corresponding word in English. Indriya are the physical senses such as eye and ear. Indriya becomes āyatana when used with a defiled mind.

May 7, 2016; revised December 4, 2017; May 12, 2023

Indriya Can Become Āyatana

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

  • In the Western world, we speak about the five physical senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and 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 in the Eastern World these days as well.
  • In Buddha Dhamma, it is essential to realize that our sensory faculties have two aspects: physical and mental.

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

  • The physical sense faculties are referred to as indriya.
  • But indriya CAN BE used as āyatana depending on the situation. That happens when we act with greed, anger, and ignorance (of the Noble Truths.)
  • Furthermore, we will also discuss how we literally “create our own future” by using our sense faculties not merely as indriya but as āyatana.
Indriya Are the Sensory Faculties

3. In Buddha Dhamma, the five physical senses, or the “indriya,” are “physical instruments” mounted on our physical bodies to extract information (vision, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches) from the external physical world. The sensory inputs received are processed by the brain and transmitted to the mental boy (manomaya kaya) or gandhabba. The five pasāda rupa in the mental body transfer those signals to the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind) where citta (roughly translated as “thoughts”) arise in response to that sensory input. See “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”

  • For example, cakkhu indriya can be thought of as the whole system comprising the physical eyes, nerves connecting to the visual cortex in the brain, the visual cortex, and the cakkhu pasada rupa. If any of those do not function, no signal will reach the hadaya vatthu, i.e., there will be no vision. Thus, an Arahant or an average human can see unless blind.
  • In addition, per Buddha Dhamma, there is another indriya (mana indriya) that process dhammā (kamma bija and recalled memories) from the external world. This “mana indriya” or manindriya includes a “receiver/transmitter” located in the brain (not yet been identified by science) and also the hadaya vatthu
  • This has been discussed in detail in “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis“.
How Do Indriya Become Āyatana?

4. Now let us see how indriya can become āyatana. In simplest terms, agiven  indriya becomes an āyatana when we use it with greed, anger, or ignoramce. That leads to accumulating abhisaṅkhāra with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.”

  • Another way to state the difference is to say that when kamma vipāka brings us sensory 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 happen to see a beautiful house (say, while walking), our eyes are 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 think about making some more to enjoy the taste again later), then the tongue is used as jivhāyatana (jivhā āyatana.)
  • 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 with the intention of hitting) 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).
  • 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.

  • Cakku indriya is in play when an image of an object 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 (liked object) or anger (disliked object) towards it. 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. See, “Salāyatana Are Not Sense Faculties (with chart #11).”
Indriya Involve Physical RupaĀyatana Are ‘Mind-Made”

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 sensory 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 indriyās do not change much from moment to moment, but āyatanās 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 changes 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 it 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 an average human, the sense faculties do not work as āyatana all the time. But the possibility is ALWAYS there.
Different Types of Abhisaṅkhāra Generated with Āyatana

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

Indriya Bhāvanā = Ānāpānasati/Satipaṭṭhāna

11. Now we can also figure out what is 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 take it home is making āyatana. But that is hard to avoid for an average 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 coming 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 the special application of the Satipaṭṭhāna/Ānāpānasati 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 concept (thoughts).

  • Even an average 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.
Other Types of Indriya

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

  • For example, “pañca indriya” in 37 Factors of Enlightenment refers 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 “pañca 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“.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email