Mindfulness of Dhammas: The Six Sense Bases

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp.135-146)

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 205-222)

The Six Internal and Six External Sense Bases

We have seen in the last dhamma, the Five Aggregates of Clinging, that we become aware of form (an internal sense base such as the eye making contact with an external visible sense object) though consciousness.  The arising of the entire world of our unfolding experience comes through these six sense bases.

The Buddha called these sense bases, the all:

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the all. . . . And what, bhikkhus, is the all? It is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all.  The Buddha SN 35.23

For example, with the eye sense base:  “Dependent on eye & forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what a person objectifies, the perceptions & categories of objectification assail him/her with regard to past, present, & future forms cognizable via the eye,  Madhupindika Sutta  MN 18

In the Sattipatthana Sutta, the Buddha gives instruction on how to work with the all (the sense bases).  For example, with the eye:

In regard to dhammas, one abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the six internal and external sense-spheres. And how does one . . . abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the six internal and external sense-spheres? “Here, one knows the eye, one knows forms, and one knows the fetter that arises dependent on both, and one also knows how an unarisen fetter can arise, how an arisen fetter can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed fetter can be prevented.”

A fetter is conditioning that causes a distortion.  It is also called a defilement.  The Five Hindrances are distortions at a grosser level of the mind.  The Buddha is saying that we need to understand how once the eye, for example, makes contact with the visible object and once consciousness makes contact, our awareness can become conditioned (through feeling, perception and mental formations).  The Buddha wants us to be aware of this conditioning (distortion, fetter, defilement) that arises and how we can remove this distortion and even prevent it from arising in the future.

This is shown in the diagram below:

As the Buddha mentioned, there are conditions that lead to the arising of distortion, conditions that lead to the removal of distortion and prevention of distortion.

Conditions leading to arising of distortion:  dwelling (spending too much time with the contact can lead to craving and clinging. Desire, aversion, and delusion are the causes.

Forms, sounds, tastes, odours,

Tactiles, and all mental objects:

This is the terrible bait of the world

With which the world is infatuated.  SN 4.17 

Friends, the internal spheres is one end, the external spheres is the second end, consciousness is the middle. Craving is the seamstress. Craving weaves for him to be reborn here and there. Friends, with this much the bhikkhu thoroughly knows what should be thoroughly known and experiencing what should be experienced, here and now makes an end of unpleasantness.  AN 006 Mahavagga 7. Majjhesuttaṃ

Conditions leading to removal of distortion:  First of all, one must be aware that the distortion is present.  There are physical and mental symptoms that arise such as tightness, pain in the body, anger and depression in the mind.  It is important to have mindful awareness and know that this contact of the sense base with the sense object is like all phenomena:  impermanent, inability to have lasting satisfaction (potential for suffering) and selfless nature.  By awareness and investigation, the conditioning can be removed.

Prevention:  There are several methods:  sense restraint by not dwelling too much and by setting boundaries such as not limiting or eliminating exposure (e.g. a certain visible object that is a temptation). Also adding beneficial cognition which is changing our mental habits to develop beneficial ones based on impermanence, suffering and selfless nature.

Ledi Sayadaw, one of the great Burmese meditation masters and scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, likened the sense bases to six train stations from which trains travel to various destinations. Either they take us to situations of suffering, or they take us to realms of happiness or to freedom and full awakening.  Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

See the table below for a summary:




Forms, sounds, tastes, odours,

Tactiles, and all mental objects:

This is the terrible bait of the world

With which the world is infatuated.

But when he has transcended this,

The mindful disciple of the Buddha

Shines radiantly like the sun,

Having surmounted Māra’s realm.  SN 4.17


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • Observe your sense bases and see if you can detect the signs of physical and mental arousal from the arising of desire, aversion and/or delusion.  See if you can appreciate the conditions leading to removal and prevention.


  • Meditate using the mindfulness of the breath technique and focus your insight meditation on states of mind.

Next: Mindfulness of Dhammas: The Seven Factors of Awakening I
Previous: Mindfulness of the Dhammas: The Five Aggregates of Clinging II