Saḷāyatana Are Not Sense Faculties

Saḷāyatana is incorrectly translated into English as the “six sense fields.” Arahants do not have saḷāyatana but have the six sense fields.

May 1, 2023; revised May 2, 2023

Print/Download:11. Salāyatana – Not Sense Faculties


1. Most English translations of suttas incorrectly translate “saḷāyatana” as the “six sense fields.” See, for example, “Paṭiccasamuppāda Sutta (SN 12.1),” where.”saḷāyatana nirodhā phassa nirodho” is translated as “When the six sense fields cease, contact ceases.” Arahants (or the Buddha) would have their sense fields working at optimum levels but do not have “saḷāyatana,” as I explain below.

  • In most cases, it is best to look at the “definitions” of key Pali words in the three  Commentaries included with the Tipiṭaka (PaṭisambhidāmaggaPeṭakopadesa, and Nettippakarana) or the “Vibhaṅga” in the Abhidhamma Pitaka.
  • Other Commentaries written later (and not included in the Tipiṭaka) have apparent contradictions with the Tipiṭaka; see “Tipiṭaka Commentaries – Helpful or Misleading?
Twelve Āyatana, Not Six

2. The “Āyatana vibhaṅga” section of the Vibhaṅga explains that there are 12 āyatana not just six: “cakkhāyatanaṁ, rūpāyatanaṁ, sotāyatanaṁ, saddāyatanaṁ, ghānāyatanaṁ, gandhāyatanaṁ, jivhāyatanaṁ, rasāyatanaṁ, kāyāyatanaṁ, phoṭṭhabbāyatanaṁ, manāyatanaṁ, dhammāyatanaṁ.”

  • They are explained as six internal (cakkhāyatanaṁ, sotāyatanaṁ, ghānāyatanaṁ, jivhāyatanaṁ, kāyāyatanaṁ, manāyatanaṁ) and six external āyatana (rūpāyatanaṁ, saddāyatanaṁ, gandhāyatanaṁ, rasāyatanaṁ, phoṭṭhabbāyatanaṁ, dhammāyatanaṁ) in the “Saḷāyatana Vagga” in Saṁyutta Nikāya (SN 4.)
  • Obviously, the six internal āyatana are associated with the six senses (five physical senses and the mind), and the six external āyatana are associated with the external world. The six senses BECOME six internal āyatana when interacting with the external world and accumulating kamma for the Saṁsāric journey (rebirth process.)
  • The brief explanation: When we attach to things in the external world, we convert our senses into āyatana (ajjhatta āyatana), i.e., we start using them to enjoy “pleasurable things” in the external world. Those “pleasurable things” then become “external āyatana” (bāhira āyatana.)
  • The SN4 starts with three suttas (SN 35.1 through 35.3), stating the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of the internal āyatana. The next three state the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of the external āyatana.
Pada Nirutti of “Āyatana”

3. The Pali word “āyatana” comes from “āya” + “thana,” where “āya” means “to acquire” and “thana” means “place” or “location.” Note that “āyatana” is pronounced as “āyathana,” as in “thief.”

  • In this specific case, “āyatana” is where one “collects (defilements)” for the rebirth process (Saṁsāra.) 
  • Defilements at an intense level are lobha, dosa, and moha. Those reduce to rāga, paṭigha, and avijjā with the dispelling of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi. See, “Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage.”
  • When the six sense faculties are used for “collecting,” they BECOME “āyatana.” The incentive for “collecting defilements” is attachment to things in this world (rūpā, saddā, gandha, rasa, phoṭṭhabba, dhammā.) Thus, they are external āyatana.
  • Of course, Arahants do not engage in “collecting,” and thus, their sense faculties do not become āyatana; furthermore, external rupa of all six types do not become āyatana either.
Āyatana Are Not “Sense Faculties”

4. Since internal āyatana takes into account all past, present, and future (perceived) sense faculties, our current sense faculties are only a minute fraction of the category of “internal āyatana.” 

  • Furthermore, the sense faculties of living Arahants (or living Buddha) are NOT āyatana. They are mere “sense faculties.”
  • The sense faculties BECOME āyatana ONLY IF one views/perceives them as one’s own. With that wrong view/perception, they use the sense faculties to “enjoy worldly things.” That is how sense faculties become āyatana.
  • To get rid of wrong view/perception, we must see the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of the sense faculties (past, present, and future) as stated in the “Ajjhattāyatanaanicca Sutta (SN 35. 222)” through “Ajjhattāyatanaanatta Sutta (SN 35.224).”
  • Another revelation is that “anicca” does not mean “impermanence,” and “anatta” does not mean “no-self.”
The whole World is Comprised of Twelve Āyatana 

5. The sutta #23 of the Saḷāyatana Vagga states that “all” (“sabba“) in this world is included in the twelve āyatana: “Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23).”

  • A series of 59 short suttas from “SN 35. 168” through “SN 35.227” explain that past, present, and paccuppanna (“present”) versions of internal and external āyatana are included in the category of āyatana.
  • They further explain that they ALL have the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature.
  • The reason is that the description of “the world” in terms of twelve āyatana is equivalent to the description of the five aggregates, for example. 
“The World” Can be Represented in Many Ways

6. As in the case of the five aggregates, the twelve āyatana are categorized as past, present, and paccuppanna (“present”), as pointed out above.

  • That makes sense since the six internal and five external āyatana takes into account the rupakkhandha
  • The sixth external āyatana (dhammā) incorporates the kamma viññāṇa; thus, it can be represented by the viññāṇa aggregate.) Nāmagotta contains all records of the vipāka viññāṇa, and thus, can be represented by the first three mental aggregates.
  • Even though nāmagotta are not dhammā, they come to mind as dhammā when we recall them. I have explained that in the forum (but I should write a post to explain it fully.) See comment #40356 (on September 14, 2022, at 2:42 pm) in the thread “Post on ‘Nāmagotta, Bhava, Kamma Bīja, and Mano Loka (Mind Plane)’
  • You may want to think about this carefully. See the analysis of the five aggregates in “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).” We can discuss any questions in the forum.
Craving Āyatana Is Equivalent to “Pañca Upādānakkhandhā”

7. In the section “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha),” we discussed the fact that we get attached to only a fraction of the five aggregates (things in this world.)

  • In this “analysis in terms of the twelve āyatana,” we can see that we attach to the same pañca upādānakkhandā (pañcupādānakkhandā.)
  • We attach to all six internal āyatana. That happens for all average humans who view/perceive all internal sense faculties as “mine.” As we discussed, that view is sakkāya diṭṭhi.
  • However, we attach to only a fraction of external āyatana. For example, we attach only to a fraction of external rupa, sadda, gandha, rasa, and phottabba.
  • With the above background, we can now discuss some critical facts.
Wrong Translations of Anicca 

8. I mentioned above (#4, #5) that the twelve āyatana are categorized as past, present, and paccuppanna (“present.”) That is elaborated in a series of suttas from SN 35. 186 through SN 35. 227.

  • The three suttasAjjhattātītānicca Sutta (SN 35.186),” “Ajjhattānāgatānicca Sutta (SN 35.187),” and “Ajjhattapaccuppannānicca Sutta (SN 35.188)” state that the six internal āyatana belonging to the past, future and present are of the anicca nature.
  • Obviously, the past āyatana refers to those that one had in previous lives, i.e., one’s past āyatana ARE of anicca nature. It does not make sense to say, “One’s past āyatana ARE impermanent.”
  • The point is that some yogis who can look at previous lives and see their births in Deva or Brahma realms may boast about them. Yet, those “seemingly valuable existences” could not be maintained. Any existence among the 31 realms (whether now, in the past, or in the future) is of anicca nature; not one can be maintained in that state.
  • Therefore, it should be clear that the translation of “anicca” as “impermanence” does not make sense.

9. The three suttasBāhirātītādianicca Sutta (SN 35.195-197)”  state that the six external āyatana belonging to the past, future and present are of the anicca nature: “Rūpā, bhikkhave, aniccā atītā anāgatā paccuppannā. Saddā … gandhā … rasā … phoṭṭhabbā … dhammā aniccā atītā anāgatā paccuppannā.”

  • Again, all three tenses are shown without distinction.
  • That verse should be translated as, “Bhikkhus, any rupa, whether past, future, or present, has the anicca nature. The same applies to any sadda (sounds,) .., and dhammā.” Also, note that dhammā is incorrectly translated as “thoughts.” That error seems to be in all the suttas in SN 35.
  • That is what happens when the translator does not understand the fundamentals of Buddha Dhamma!
Wrong Translations of Anatta

10. In most English texts, “anatta” is translated as “no-self.” Here we also find evidence to the contrary.

  • The “Bāhirāyatanaanatta Sutta (SN 35. 227)” states, “Rūpā, bhikkhave, anattā. Saddā … gandhā … rasā … phoṭṭhabbā … dhammā anattā.”  That is translated word by word as, “Mendicants, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts are not-self.”
  • What does it mean to say “sights” are “no-self”? Touches are “no-self”? How can sights, sounds, ..touches have a “self”?
  • Bāhirānattachandādi Sutta (SN 35. 183-185)” has similar verses for saddā … gandhā … rasā … phoṭṭhabbā … dhammā.
  • The correct meaning of anatta is explained in “Anatta – A Systematic Analysis.”
Cakkhu Aniccaṁ” Means “Cakkhāyatana Is of Anicca Nature”

11. Many think “Cakkhu, bhikkhave, aniccaṁ” Means “Bhikkhus, the eye is impermanent.” That is how most translators have translated it. So, many people meditate, saying, “My eyes are impermanent.” 

  • But the meaning is more profound: “The use of eye faculty to accumulate sensory pleasures will not lead to the intended outcome in the long run. Furthermore, it will lead to unintended detrimental outcomes in the long run.”
  • I specifically mention “in the long run” because some outcomes materialize only in future lives.
  • Any cakkhu (set of physical eyes with associated cakkhu pasāda rupa) that we ever had, we have now, or may have in the future, HAVE the anicca nature!
  • Of course, the same hold for all 12 internal and external āyatana.
Connection to Three Diṭṭhis

12. “Micchādiṭṭhipahāna Sutta (SN 35. 165),” “Sakkāyadiṭṭhipahāna Sutta (SN 35. 166),” and “Attānudiṭṭhipahāna Sutta (SN 35. 167)” describe that one can get rid of micchā diṭṭhi, sakkāya diṭṭhi, and attānu diṭṭhi by realizing the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of the 12 āyatana respectively.

  • As I pointed out in #10 above, “anatta” is not about a “self.” The wrong view of an “unchanging self” is in the three views of micchā diṭṭhi, sakkāya diṭṭhi, and attānu diṭṭhi.
  • Note that “atta” (related to “anatta“) is different from “attā” in attānu diṭṭhi. Sakkāya diṭṭhi and attānu diṭṭhi are about a “self” or “me” (attā) traversing the rebirth process. See “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?
  • On the other hand, “anatta nature” means that “anything in this world has no value; one becomes helpless in the long run when such things are pursued.”

13. As we know, a Sotapanna gets on the Noble Eightfold Path by just comprehending the “wider worldview” of the Buddha. Paicca Samuppāda explains that no “permanent self” (attā) traverses the rebirth process. That leads to the removal of sakkāya diṭṭhi and attānu diṭṭhi.

  • Concomitantly, one realizes anything in this world is of anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature (Tilakkhana.)
  • Those two realizations involve two types of atta. Sakkāya diṭṭhi involves attā” (with a long “a”), and anatta in Tilakkhana involves atta (with a long “a.”)

14. This post is packed with many subtle issues. Please take the time to review the links provided. Don’t hesitate to ask questions in the forum. It is not possible to include details in a single post.

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