Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha - Selections


The Saḷāyatanavagga, The Book of the Six Sense Bases, is the third great collection of connected discourses with a philosophical orientation. Like its two predecessors, the Vagga is dominated by its first chapter, the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta, which takes up 208 of the 403 pages in the PTS edition of this volume. Its junior partner is the Vedanāsaṃyutta, which deals with another closely related theme of the Buddha’s teaching, feeling. Feeling assumes special importance because it serves as the main condition, in the doctrine of dependent origination, for the arising of craving. Feeling also finds a place among the four establishments of mindfulness, to be explored in Part V, and thus links theory with practice. The other saṃyuttas in this book do not have any intimate connection with the two major themes, but cover a wide variety of topics ranging from the weaknesses and strengths of women to the nature of the unconditioned.

35. Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta

The Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta draws together a vast assortment of texts dealing with the six internal and external sense bases. Though most of these are very short, a few, especially towards the end, tend to approach the size of the shorter discourses in the Majjhima Nikāya. To organize such a large number of suttas into a convenient format, the saṃyutta is divided into four paññāsakas, sets of fifty. While the first three sets of fifty actually contain roughly fifty suttas each, the fourth has ninety-three, including a single vagga (among four) with a full sixty suttas! This is the “Sixtyfold Repetition Series,” a compilation of sixty extremely brief suttas grouped into batches of three. If each of the triplets were to be compressed into a single sutta, as Feer has done in Ee, we would then get a vagga of twenty suttas, the number counted by Feer. But Be and Se, followed here, count the triplets as three individual suttas, thus yielding sixty suttas, a total supported by the title of the vagga. Principally on account of this difference in the treatment of the repetition series, Ee has a total of 207 suttas while the present translation has 248; the additional difference of one obtains because Feer has combined two suttas which clearly should have been kept distinct.

On first consideration, it would seem that the six internal and external sense bases should be understood simply as the six sense faculties and their objects, with the term āyatana, base, having the sense of origin or source. Though many suttas lend support to this supposition, the Theravāda exegetical tradition, beginning already from the Abhidhamma period, understands the six pairs of bases as a complete scheme of classification capable of accommodating all the factors of existence mentioned in the Nikāyas. This conception of the six bases probably originated from the Sabba Sutta (35:23), in which the Buddha says that the six pairs of bases are “the all” apart from which nothing at all exists. To make the six bases capable of literally incorporating everything, the Vibhaṅga of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka defines the mind base (manāyatana) as including all classes of consciousness, and the mental phenomena base (dhammāyatana) as including the other three mental aggregates, subtle nonsensuous types of form, and even the unconditioned element, Nibbāna (see Vibh 70–73).

Seen from this angle, the six internal and external sense bases offer an alternative to the five aggregates as a scheme of phenomenological classification. The relationship between the two schemes might be seen as roughly analogous to that between horizontal and vertical cross-sections of an organ, with the analysis by way of the aggregates corresponding to the horizontal slice, the analysis by way of the six sense bases to the vertical slice (see Table 6). Thus, we are told, on an occasion of visual cognition, eye-consciousness arises in dependence on the eye and forms; the meeting of the three is contact; and with contact as condition there arise feeling, perception, and volition. Viewing this experience “vertically” by way of the sense bases, the eye and visible forms are each a separate base, respectively the eye base and the form base; eye-consciousness belongs to the mind base; and eye-contact, feeling, perception, and volition are all assigned to the mental phenomena base. Then, using the scalpel of thought to cut “horizontally” across the occasion of visual cognition, we can ask what is present from the form aggregate? The eye and a visible form (and the body as the physical basis of consciousness). What from the feeling aggregate? A feeling born of eye-contact. What from the perception aggregate? A perception of a visible form. What from the aggregate of volitional formations? A volition regarding a form. And what from the consciousness aggregate? An act of eye-consciousness.

Table 6
An Occasion of Visual Cognition in Terms
of the Aggregates and Sense Bases

Aggregates Visual Cognition Sense Bases


eye base
form base
consciousness eye-consciousness mind base
(volitional formations) eye-contact mental phenomena base
feeling feeling born of eye-contact mental phenomena base
perception perception of form mental phenomena base
volitional formations volition regarding form mental phenomena base

Note: Contact (phassa) is classified in the aggregate of volitional formations in the Abhidhamma and the commentaries, though in the Nikāyas it is not explicitly assigned a place among the five aggregates.

Strangely, though some connection between the aggregates and sense bases, as just sketched, is already suggested in at least two suttas (35:93121), the Nikāyas do not explicitly correlate the two schemes. Conscious correlation begins only with the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, especially in the opening sections of the Dhātukathā, which reflects the attempt of the early Buddhist community to merge the more pragmatic schemes of the suttas into a single all-inclusive system that assigned to every element a precisely defined place.

Nevertheless, though this treatment of the sense bases stems from an early period, the Nikāyas themselves usually present the six pairs of sense bases not as a complete phenomenological scheme but as starting points for the genesis of cognition. Often, because of their role in mediating between consciousness and its objects, the internal bases are spoken of as the “bases for contact” (phassāyatana). If this interpretation is adopted, then mind (mano), the base for the arising of mind-consciousness (manoviññāṇa), probably denotes the passive flow of mind from which active cognition emerges, and dhammā the nonsensuous objects of consciousness apprehended by introspection, imagination, and reflection.

As with the aggregates, so with the sense bases, concern with their classification and interactions is governed not by an interest in theoretical completeness but by the practical exigencies of the Buddha’s path aimed at liberation from suffering. The sense bases are critically important because it is through them that suffering arises (35:106). Even more, it is said that the holy life is lived under the Buddha for the full understanding of suffering, and if others should ask what is the suffering that should be fully understood, the correct answer is that the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, etc., and all phenomena derived from them, are the suffering that should be fully understood (35:81152).

The main pragmatic concern with the sense bases is the eradication of clinging, for like the aggregates the sense bases serve as the soil where clinging takes root and thrives. Because clinging originates from ignorance and craving, and because ignorance sustains clinging by weaving its web of the triple delusion—permanence, happiness, and self—we find in the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta almost all the familiar templates used in the Khandhasaṃyutta; often, in fact, these templates are here applied twice to generate parallel suttas for the internal and external sense bases. Thus, to dispel ignorance and generate true knowledge, we repeatedly hear the same melodies, in a slightly different key, reminding us that the sense bases and their derivatives are impermanent, suffering, and nonself; that we must discern the gratification, danger, and escape in regard to the sense bases; that we should abandon desire and lust for the sense bases.

However, despite large areas of convergence between the two saṃyuttas, the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta introduces several new perspectives that bear on the sense bases but have no exact parallels in relation to the aggregates. Thus the saṃyutta includes a long chain of twenty suttas which expose the flaws in conditioned existence, summed up under the caption “the all.” All, it is said, is subject to birth, aging, sickness, death, and so forth, and the all is nothing other than the sense bases and the mental processes arising from them (35:33–42). Several suttas in this chapter identify the six sense bases with the world, because the world (loka) is whatever disintegrates (lujjati), and because in the Noble One’s Discipline the world is understood as “that in the world by which one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world” (35:8284116). In one sutta the question is raised why the world is said to be empty (suñña), and the answer given is because the six bases are empty of a self and of what belongs to self (35:85). No parallels to these discourses are found in the Khandhasaṃyutta. This saṃyutta also describes the six internal sense bases as “old kamma” (35:146), which could not be said so plainly about the aggregates, for they comprise both kammically active and resultant phases of experience. We further find here that greater stress is placed on “conceiving” (maññita), the distorted cognitions influenced by craving, conceit, and views, with several discourses devoted to the methods of contemplation for uprooting all conceivings (35:30–3290–91). The entire saṃyutta ends with a masterly discourse in which the Buddha urges the monks to uproot conceiving in all its guises (35:248).

Although the aggregates and sense bases jointly serve as the domain of craving and wrong views, a difference in emphasis can be discerned in the way the two saṃyuttas connect these two defilements to their respective domains. The Khandhasaṃyutta consistently treats the aggregates as the objective referent of identity view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi), the views that seek to give substance to the idea of a self. When the puthujjana or “worldling” fashions a view about his or her identity, he or she always does so in relation to the five aggregates. We do not find any parallel text expressing identity view in terms of the sense bases. This difference in emphasis is understandable when we realize that the scheme of the aggregates spans a wider spectrum of categories than the sense bases themselves and therefore offers the worldling more variety to choose from when attempting to give substance to the notion of “my self.” This, it must be stressed, indicates a difference in emphasis, not a fundamental doctrinal difference, for the sense bases can be grasped upon with the notions “This is mine, this I am, this is my self” just as tenaciously as the aggregates can. Thus we even find a series of three suttas which state that contemplating the sense bases as impermanent, suffering, and nonself leads respectively to the abandoning of wrong view, identity view, and view of self (35:165–67). However, as a general rule, the sense bases are not taken up for a thematic exposition of identity view in the way the five aggregates are, which is certainly significant. We see too that the entire Diṭṭhisaṃyutta, on the diversity of views, traces all these views to a misapprehension of the aggregates, not of the sense bases.

In relation to the sense bases the interest in views recedes into the background, and a new theme takes centre stage: the need to control and master the senses. It is the sense faculties that give us access to the agreeable and disagreeable phenomena of the world, and it is our spontaneous, impulsive responses to these phenomena that sow the seeds of so much suffering. Within the untrained mind lust, hatred, and delusion, the three roots of evil, are always lying latent, and with delusion obscuring the true nature of things, agreeable objects are bound to provoke lust and greed, disagreeable objects hatred and aversion. These spontaneous reactions flood the mind and bid for our consent. If we are not careful we may rush ahead in pursuit of immediate gratification, oblivious to the fact that the fruit of sensual enjoyment is misery (see 35:94–98).

To inculcate sense restraint, the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta makes constant use of two formulas. One is the stock description of sense restraint (indriyasaṃvara) usually embedded in the sequence on the gradual training, common in the Dīgha Nikāya (e.g., at I 70) and the Majjhima Nikāya (e.g., at I 180–81). This formula enjoins the practice of sense restraint to keep the “evil unwholesome states of covetousness and displeasure” from invading the mind. In the present chapter it occurs at 35:120127239240, and elsewhere. The second formula posits a contrast between one who is “intent upon a pleasing form and repelled by a displeasing form” and one who is not swayed by these pairs of opposites. The latter has set up mindfulness of the body, dwells with a measureless mind, and understands the “liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom” where the evil states of lust and aversion cease without remainder. This formula is found at 35:132243244, and 247. Though no explicit doctrinal allocations are made for these two formulas, it seems the first is prescribed in general for a bhikkhu in the initial stages of training, while the second describes the sense restraint of the trainee (sekha), one at a minimal level of stream-enterer, perhaps too the natural sense restraint of the arahant.

The practice of sense restraint is necessary in the Buddhist training, not only to avoid the mental distress provoked here and now by attachment and aversion, but for a reason more deeply connected to the ultimate aim of the Dhamma. The doctrine of dependent origination reveals that craving is the propelling cause of suffering, and craving springs up with feeling as its proximate cause. Feeling occurs in the six sense bases, as pleasant, painful, and neutral feeling, and through our unwholesome responses to these feelings we nourish the craving that holds us in bondage. To gain full deliverance from suffering, craving must be contained and eradicated, and thus the restraint of the senses becomes an integral part of the discipline aimed at the removal of craving.

There is also a cognitive side to the teaching on sense restraint. Craving and other defilements arise and flourish because the mind seizes upon the “signs” (nimitta) and “features” (anubyañjana) of sensory objects and uses them as raw material for creating imaginative constructs, to which it clings as a basis for security. This process, called mental proliferation (papañca), is effectively synonymous with conceiving (maññanā). These constructs, created under the influence of the defilements, serve in turn as springboards for still stronger and more tenacious defilements, thus sustaining a vicious cycle. To break this cycle, what is needed as a preliminary step is to restrain the senses, which involves stopping at the bare sensum, without plastering it over with layers of meaning whose origins are purely subjective. Hence the Buddha’s instructions to the bhikkhu Māluṅkyaputta, “In the seen there will be merely the seen,” and the beautiful poem the bhikkhu composes to convey his understanding of this maxim (35:95; see too 35:94).

This aspect of sense restraint receives special emphasis in the last two vaggas of the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta, which stand out by reason of their startling imagery and extended similes. Here the six sense faculties are spoken of as an ocean, the sense objects as their current, and the faring along the spiritual path as a voyage in which we are exposed to dangers that we can only surmount by sense restraint (35:228). Again, agreeable sense objects are like baited hooks cast out by Māra; one who swallows them comes under Māra’s control; one who resists them escapes unharmed (35:230). It is better, we are told, to have our sense faculties lacerated by sharp instruments, hot and glowing, than to become infatuated with attractive sense objects; for such infatuation can lead to rebirth in the lower realms (35:235). Our existential condition is depicted by the parable of a man pursued by four vipers, five murderous enemies, and an assassin, his only means to safety a handmade raft (35:238). A bhikkhu in training should draw his senses inward as a tortoise draws its limbs into its shell, for Māra is like a hungry jackal trying to get a grip on him (35:240). The six senses are like six animals each drawn to their natural habitat, which must be tied by the rope of sense restraint and bound to the strong post of body-directed mindfulness (35:247). The saṃyutta ends with a parable about the magical bonds of the asura-king Vepacitti and sounds a decisive call to eliminate all modes of conceiving rooted in craving and wrong views (35:248).

36. Vedanāsaṃyutta

Although feeling has often been mentioned as a product of contact at the six sense bases, since it is a potent force in the activation of the defilements it receives separate treatment in a saṃyutta of its own, with three vaggas containing thirty-one suttas. The Sinhala-script editions of SN include this chapter in the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta, presumably because feeling arises through the six sense bases. In the present collection of suttas, however, feeling is seldom correlated with the sense bases but is far more often expounded by way of its threefold division into the pleasant, painful, and neutral (i.e., neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling). Thus it seems better to follow the Burmese textual tradition, which treats this chapter as a separate saṃyutta.

Feeling is a key link in the chain of dependent origination, the immediate precursor of craving, and thus to break the chain requires that our defiled responses to feeling be overcome. For this reason the Buddha has made feeling one of the four “establishments of mindfulness” (satipaṭṭhāna) and here he assigns it a saṃyutta of its own. Several suttas in the first vagga explain that the three types of feelings serve as stimuli for the “underlying tendencies” (anusaya). Each feeling is correlated with a different tendency: pleasant feeling with lust, painful feeling with aversion, and neutral feeling with ignorance. The Buddha’s system of mental training aims at controlling our reactions to these feelings at the very point where they arise, without allowing them to proliferate and call their corresponding tendencies into play (36:34). The noble disciple, of course, continues to experience feeling as long as he lives, but by eradicating the underlying tendencies he cannot be inwardly perturbed by feelings (36:6). In two suttas we see the Buddha visit the sick ward and give profound discourses on the contemplation of feelings to ailing monks (36:78). These suttas culminate in a description of the arahant and his inner detachment from feelings.

A long sutta in the second vagga (36:19) describes the calibration in types of happiness that human beings can experience, ranging from sensual happiness to the bliss of the cessation of feeling and perception. In the third vagga we find a classification of illnesses (36:21) commonly used in traditional Indian medicine, and also a detailed numerical classification of the different types of feelings along the lines that became prominent in the Abhidhamma (36:22). The final sutta offers an interesting gradation of rapture, happiness, equanimity, and deliverance into three levels each—as carnal, spiritual, and “more spiritual than the spiritual” (36:31).

37. Mātugāmasaṃyutta

This saṃyutta brings together thirty-four short suttas on women. The Buddha explains what makes a woman attractive to a man, the kinds of suffering peculiar to women, and the moral qualities that lead a woman to either a bad rebirth or a good one. In this sutta the Venerable Anuruddha plays a major role, since his skill in the divine eye led him to make inquiries about such matters from the Master. The Buddha also explains how a woman wins the goodwill of her husband and his parents, the most important qualification being a virtuous character.

38. Jambukhādakasaṃyutta

39. Sāmaṇḍakasaṃyutta

These two saṃyuttas, with sixteen suttas each, have identical contents and differ only with respect to the interlocutors, two wanderers who lend their names to the two collections. The second is almost totally abridged. The suttas take the form of questions addressed to Sāriputta on such topics as Nibbāna, arahantship, the taints, the realms of existence, etc. Each ends with words of praise for the Noble Eightfold Path. The last sutta, which differs from this format, displays a gentle touch of humour.

40. Moggallānasaṃyutta

Mahāmoggallāna was the Buddha’s second chief disciple. In the first nine suttas here he describes his struggle for enlightenment, which was beset with difficulties in meditation. On each occasion he could overcome his difficulty only with the aid of the Buddha, who used his psychic powers to give the disciple “long-distance” guidance. In the last two suttas Moggallāna visits the heavens and preaches to the devas on the going for refuge to the Triple Gem. The first of these texts is extensive, the second (identical except for the audience) drastically abridged.

41. Cittasaṃyutta

Citta was a householder who was named by the Buddha the foremost male lay disciple among the speakers on the Dhamma (AN I 26,5). The present saṃyutta collects ten suttas that corroborate this designation. Even when Citta assumes the role of questioner rather than respondent, we are given to understand that he already knows the answers and is posing his questions as a way of starting a Dhamma discussion with the monks. Several times we see him teaching the Dhamma to bhikkhus, and the bhikkhus applaud him as one who has “the eye of wisdom that ranges over the deep Word of the Buddha” (41:157). The portrait of Citta we find in this chapter evinces a genuine historical personality, a layman with wide knowledge of the teaching, deep experience in meditation, sharp wisdom, and a mischievous sense of humour. The humour surfaces in his meeting with the Jain teacher Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta, whom he leads into an embarrassing verbal trap (41:8). On meeting an old friend of his, who had been a naked ascetic for thirty years but had gained nothing from his asceticism but nakedness and a shaved head, he claims to have gained such high attainments as the four jhānas and the fruit of nonreturning even while living as a householder (41:9). Even his deathbed scene conveys a sense of humour: when his relatives think he is babbling to himself, he is actually teaching the devas a lesson in impermanence (41:10).

42. Gāmaṇisaṃyutta

This collection of thirteen suttas is united by the fact that all the inquirers are described as gāmaṇis, headmen of various sorts. With a few exceptions, the inquirers are initially not followers of the Buddha and are sometimes hostile to him, but in each case the Buddha wins them over with his reasoned arguments and careful analyses of the problems they pose.

Among the headmen we meet Talapuṭa, a theatre director who was so moved by his conversation with the Buddha that he became a bhikkhu and attained arahantship (42:2). His verses (at Th 1091–1145) are masterly expressions of deep spiritual yearning. We also see a follower of the Jains come to the Buddha with the intention of tripping him up in debate, only to be stopped in his tracks and led to correct understanding (42:9). The long discourse to Rāsiya (42:12) distinguishes householders along a finely graded scale of excellence, and also evaluates different types of ascetics. In the final sutta the Buddha responds to the charge, apparently devised by envious rivals, that he is a magician (42:13).

43. Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta

This saṃyutta functions as a compendium of the different designations of Nibbāna and the various modes of practice that lead to Nibbāna. The first vagga, which speaks of Nibbāna as the unconditioned, offers eleven presentations of the path to the unconditioned (43:1–11). The second vagga begins again with the unconditioned, and in one vast sutta (43:12) enumerates under forty-five headings the various path factors that constitute the way to the unconditioned, including those of 43:2–11 divided into their components. Thereafter, in 43:13–44, Nibbāna is expounded by way of another thirty-two epithets; the presentation of the path here is drastically condensed, but the text implies that all the factors of the first twelve suttas should be connected with each epithet. If 43:12 were to be broken up into separate suttas by way of the path factors, and these added to the first eleven suttas, we would then have fifty-six suttas on the unconditioned alone. And if this method were then to be applied to each epithet, the number of suttas in this saṃyutta would total 1,848.

44. Abyākatasaṃyutta

The suttas in this saṃyutta all respond to the question why the Buddha has not adopted any of the metaphysical tenets advocated and hotly debated by his contemporaries. Of particular concern is the problem whether the Tathāgata exists after death. The first sutta features a discussion on this topic between King Pasenadi of Kosala and the bhikkhunī Khemā, the nun foremost in wisdom, whose profound reply to the king is later affirmed by the Master (44:1). The suttas in this chapter are enough to dispose of the common assumption that the Buddha refrained from adopting any of these metaphysical standpoints merely on pragmatic grounds, i.e., because they are irrelevant to the quest for deliverance from suffering. The answers given to the queries show that the metaphysical tenets are rejected primarily because, at the fundamental level, they all rest upon the implicit assumption of a self, an assumption which in turn springs from ignorance about the real nature of the five aggregates and the six sense bases. For one who has fathomed the real nature of these phenomena, all these speculative views turn out to be untenable.

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© Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2000)

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