Eighteen dhatus (Skt. aṣṭadaśa dhātu; Pali. aṭṭhārasa dhātuyo; Tib. ཁམས་བཅོ་བརྒྱད་, khams bco brgyad) are one of three important psycho-physical models of the self and the world that were presented in the early Buddhist teachings. The other two models are the five aggregates and the twelve ayatanas. These psycho-physical models are studied in order to break down attachment to a "self" as a permanent, independently-existing entity. Hence, these models help to develop an understanding of a "self" which exists in an interdependent manner with the world around it.
Each of the three models is said to mitigate a particular type of attachment to the self. Acccording to Vasubandhu, the eighteen dhatus are taught to counter-act the view that everything we experience is either form (rupa) or thought (kalpana); in other words, this model is intended to help practitioners understand the difference between the perceptions that arise based on the five senses versus perceptions that arise in the mind (citta).
The eighteen dhatus are studied as part of the curriculum within traditional monastic study colleges. A detailed explanation of the dhatus for Western students is presented in the The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening.
Six channels of perception
The eighteen dhātus are understood as acting along six channels of perception, where each channel is composed of a sense faculty, a sense object, and sense consciousness.
|Column I||Column II||Column II|
|Channel||Faculty dhatus (indriya-dhatu)||Object dhatus (viṣaya-dhatu)||Consciousness dhatus (vijñāna-dhatu)|
|1.||eye dhatu (cakṣur-dhatu)||visual forms (rūpa-dhatu)||eye consciousness (cakṣur-vijñāna-dhatu)|
|2.||ear dhatu (śrota-dhatu)||sounds (śabda-dhatu)||ear consciousness (śrota-vijñāna-dhatu)|
|3.||nose dhatu (ghrāṇa-dhatu)||smells (gandha-dhatu)||nose consciousness (ghrāṇa-vijñāna-dhatu)|
|4.||tongue dhatu (jihvā-dhatu)||tastes (rasa-dhatu)||tongue consciousness (jihvā-vijñāna-dhatu)|
|5.||body dhatu (kaya-dhatu)||tangible objects (spraṣṭavya-dhatu)||body consciousness (kaya-vijñāna-dhatu)|
|6.||mind faculty dhatu (mano-indriya-dhatu)||mental objects (mano-viṣaya-dhatu)||mind consciousness (mano-vijñāna-dhatu)|
Column I: Faculty dhatus
The faculty dhatus have the capacity to process information.
The five sense faculty dhatus
The five sense faculty dhatus are subtle forms that are based on the five sense organs. These are:
- eye dhatu (cakṣur dhatu) - the capacity to process visual information
- ear dhatu (śrotra dhatu) - the capacity to process sounds
- nose dhatu (ghrāṇa dhatu) - the capacity to process smells
- tongue dhatu (jihva dhatu) - the capacity to process tastes
- body dhatu (kāya dhatu) - the capacity to process touch
The mind faculty dhatu
- mind faculty (manendriya) (aka "mind dhatu") - the capacity to process mental objects (mano-viṣaya-dhatu).
Column II: Object dhatus
The object dhatus are the fields or domains of what there is to process.
The five sense object dhatus
The five sense object dhatus are the "fields" that are processed by the corresponding sense faculty dhatu:
- visible forms: the perceptual field of the eye faculty
- sounds: the perceptual field of the ear faculty
- smells: the perceptual field of the nose faculty
- tastes: the perceptual field of the tongue faculty
- tangible objects: the perceptual field of the body faculty
These five sense object dhatus are called "dhatus" in the context of the eighteen dhatus. They are also called the "five sense objects" or "objective material phenomena (gocararūpa)" in the context of the skandha of form; and they are called "external sense bases" in the context of the twelve ayatanas.
The mental objects dhatu
The mental objects dhatu (mano-viṣaya-dhatu) refers to nonsensory factors of existence. This is everything that might be processsed that is non-perceptual. This includes thoughts, memory, etc.
The mental objects are also referred to as dharma-dhatu in the Abhidharma tradition.
Column III: Consciousness dhatus
The consciousness dhatus bring the object dhatus (sense objects or mental objects) into cognition.
The five sense consciousness dhatus
The sense consciousness dhatus are:
- eye consciousness (cakṣurvijñāna): brings seeing into cognition
- ear consciousness (śrotravijñāna): brings hearing into cognition
- nose consciousness (ghrāṇavijñāna): brings smelling into cognition
- tounge consciousness (jihvāvijñāna): brings tasting into cognition
- body consciousness (kāyavijñāna): brings touching and other types of bodily sensations into cognition
The mind consciousness dhatu
The mind consciousness dhatu (mano-vijñāna-dhatu) integrates the mental objects (mano-viṣaya-dhatu) into experience.
Counteracting specific errors through dhatu analysis
The dhatus are studied to counteract specific types of grasping to the self.
According to the Abhidharma-kosa
The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening explains this point of view as follows:
- The error with respect to the existence of a self or a fixity that the study of the eighteen dhatus counteracts is the error of being confused about the difference (meaning not knowing precisely, at the level of experience, the difference) between moments of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, on the one hand (channels 1–5), and moments that are not seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, on the other (mental, channel 6).
- This confusion is summarized as being confused about forms and mind (in Sanskrit, this refers to rupa and citta, respectively). Forms here means anything that we can contact. Forms refers to things “out there” that we can see, hear, smell, “taste, and touch (channels 1–5). And then there is the sixth channel, “mind,” better translated as “other,” meaning everything else that anyone could ever experience, including moments of inspiration and moments of despair. It is said that this mode of analysis is put forth in order to experientially have a sense of the difference between the sensory modes (channels 1–5) and the nonsensory mode (channel 6).”
According to the Madhyāntavibhāga
According to the Madhyāntavibhāga, the eighteen dhatus are one of the ten topics of knowledge to be mastered in order to abandon all obstacles to enlightenment. According to this text, understanding the elements is an antidote to grasping to the self as the "cause" for the world and its beings.
The Garland of Radiant Light (a commentary on the the Madhyāntavibhāga) states:
- Similarly, the idea that the self is the cause of the world vessel and its inhabitants is eliminated by gaining expertise regarding the elements. All outer and inner phenomena are included in the eighteen elements. Each of these is able to perform its own function, which constitutes its own distinct seminal capacity. Therefore, it should be understood that the vessel and its contents arise due to these distinct causes; in no way are they caused by a self.
Relation to other modes of analysis
The abhidharma tradition presents multiple modes with which to analyze the components of an individual and their relationship to the world. The three most common methods of investigation are:
- five skandhas (aggregates, heaps, etc.)
- twelve ayatanas
- eighteen dhatus (sources, etc)
Comparison with the twelve ayatanas
The eighteen dhatus are related to the twelve ayatanas as follows: in the scheme of the 18 dhatus, the "mind base" of the 12 ayatanas is divided into seven parts: the mind faculty dhatu + the dhatus of the six types of consciousness.
Comparision with the five skandhas
In regards to the aggregates:
- The first five sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) are derivates of form.
- The sixth sense organ (mind) is part of consciousness.
- The first five sense objects (visible forms, sound, smell, taste, touch) are also derivatives of form.
- The sixth sense object (mental object) includes form, feeling, perception and mental formations.
- The six sense consciousness are the basis for consciousness.
List of dhatus the in Pali language
The dhatus are expressed in the Pali langauge as follows:
- Aṭṭhārasa dhātuyo: cakkhudhātu, sotadhātu, ghānadhātu, jivhādhātu, kāyadhātu, rūpadhātu, saddadhātu, gandhadhātu, rasadhātu, phoṭṭhabbadhātu, cakkhuviññāṇadhātu, sotaviññāṇadhātu, ghānaviññāṇadhātu, jivhāviññāṇadhātu, kāyaviññāṇadhātu, manodhātu, dhammadhātu, manoviññāṇadhātu.
Bhikkhu Bodhi translates these elements as follows:
- The eighteen elements are: (1) the eye element, (2) the ear element, (3) the nose element, (4) the tongue element, (5) the body element, (6) the visible form element, (7) the sound element, (8) the smell element, (9) the taste element, (10) the tangible element, (11) the eye-consciousness element, (12) the ear-consciousness element, (13) the nose-consciousness element, (14) the tongue-consciousness element, (15) the body-consciousness element, (16) the mind element, (17) the mental-object element, (18) the mind-consciousness element.
- eighteen components of perception (Richard Barron)
- eighteen elements
- eighteen psychophysical bases (Dorje & Kapstein)
- eighteen sensory spectra (Dorje & Coleman)
- eighteen cognitive sources (Berzin)
- Goodman 2020, s.v. Chapter 4: Six Channels of Perception.
- For example, Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics states: "“The eighteen elements (dhātu) consist of six objective elements — form, sound, smell, taste, tactility, and mental objects;  six sense-faculty elements that support consciousness — the eye sense faculty, ear sense faculty, nose sense faculty, tongue sense faculty, body sense faculty, and mental sense faculty..." (Vol. 1, "Systems of Classification")
- Goodman 2020, s.v. "Chapter 5: Dhatus and Channel Processing".
- Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2007, s.v. The Ten Topics of Knowledge.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. "The Eighteen Elements".
- Bodhi (2000a), pp. 287-8.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (2000), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Pariyatti Publishing
- Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2007), Middle Beyond Extremes: Maitreya's Madhyantavibhaga with Commentaries by Khenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham, Snow Lion Publications
- Goodman, Steven D. (2020), The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening: An In-Depth Guide to the Abhidharma (Apple Books ed.), Shambhala Publications
- Mipham Rinpoche (2004), Gateway to Knowledge, vol. I, translated by Kunsang, Erik Pema, Rangjung Yeshe Publications
- The 5 Aggregates, 12 Cognitive Stimulators, 18 Sources, StudyBuddhism
- Eighteen dhatus
- Abhidhamma in Daily Life: Chapter 18: Elements