Five sense faculties

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The five sense faculties (Skt. pañcindriya; T. དབང་པོ་ལྔ་, dbang po lnga) are five internal sense faculties that are identified as belonging to rupa-skandha (the aggregate of form). These are:

  • eye faculty (Skt. cakṣurindriya; Tib. མིག་གི་དབང་པོ་, Wyl. mig gi dbang po)
  • ear faculty (Skt. śrotrendriya; Tib. རྣ་བའི་དབང་པོ་, Wyl. rna ba’i dbang po)
  • nose faculty (Skt. ghrāṇendriya; Tib. སྣའི་དབང་པོ་, Wyl. sna’i dbang po)
  • tongue faculty (Skt. jihvendriya; Tib. ལྕེའི་དབང་པོ་ , Wyl. lce’i dbang po)
  • body faculty (Skt. kāyendriya; Tib. ལུས་ཀྱི་དབང་པོ་, Wyl. lus kyi dbang po)

These five faculties control the apprehending of their individual objects (the five sense objects).

Sanskrit tradition

General description of the faculties

The five sense faculties are very subtle forms that are supported by the corresponding physical organs.

Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics states:

The five sense faculties, such as the eyes, exist as clear internal sense organs that cannot be dissected into parts nor weighed by scales since they are, like light, extremely translucent. They are dependent on the skeletal cavity supporting the individual sense faculty, and, as their effect, they generate sensory consciousness. Just as, for example, a reflection of an object appears in a mirror, images of “color and shape appear to the eye sense faculty and visual consciousness arises. Thus “the clear internal sense organ that acts as the specific dominant condition of eye consciousness, which is its result” is the definition of the eye sense faculty. On the basis of this one can understand how to define the four remaining sense faculties, such as the ear sense faculty and so on.[1]

Description of each faculty

The Khenjuk states:

The five sense faculties are the eye faculty and likewise the ear, nose, tongue, and body faculties. The five faculties are the particular ruling factors for their respective cognitions. They are inner subtle forms [based on the physical sense organ]'
The [shape of the] eye faculty is similar to [the round and blue shape of] the umaka [sesame/cumin] flower; the ear faculty is similar to [the shape of] a twisted roll of birch bark; the nose faculty is similar to [the shape of] parallel copper needles; the tongue faculty is similar to [the shape of] a crescent moon disc; and the body faculty is [all-covering] similar to the skin of the smooth-to-the-touch bird.[2]

Pali tradition

Explanation from the Vimuttimagga

According to the Vimuttimagga, the sense organs can be understood in terms of the object sensed, the consciousness aroused, the underlying "sensory matter," and an associated primary or derived element that is present "in excess." These characteristics are summarized in the table below.

in excess
eye visual objects visual consciousness "...the three small fleshy discs round the pupil, and the white and black of the eye-ball that is in five layers of flesh, blood, wind, phlegm and serum, is half a poppy-seed in size, is like the head of a louseling...." heat (fire)
ear sounds auditory consciousness " the interior of the two ear-holes, is fringed by tawny hair, is dependent on the membrane, is like the stem of a blue-green bean...." space[3]
nose odors olfactory consciousness " the interior of the nose, where the three meet, is dependent on one small opening, is like a Koviḷāra (flower in shape)...." air
tongue tastes gustatory consciousness "...two-finger breadths in size, is in shape like a blue lotus, is located in the flesh of the tongue...." water
body tangibles tactual consciousness " the entire body, excepting the hair of the body and the head, nails teeth and other insensitive parts...." earth
Table 1. The Vimuttimagga's characterization of sense organs.[4]

In regards to defining the sense bases in terms of excess primary elements, the Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XIV, 42) is critical:

"... Others say that the eye is sensitivity of those [primary elements] that have fire in excess, and that the ear, nose, tongue, and body are [sensitivity] of those [primary elements] that have [respectively] aperture, air, water and earth in excess. They should be asked to quote a sutta. They will certainly not find one." (Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 444, para. 42.)

Explanation from the Visuddhimagga

The Visuddhimagga describes the sense organs in terms of the following four factors:

  • characteristic or sign (lakkhaṇa)
  • function or "taste" (rasa)
  • manifestation (paccupaṭṭhāna)
  • proximate cause (padaṭṭhāna)

Thus, for instance, it describes the eye as follows:

Herein, the eye's characteristic is sensitivity of primary elements that is ready for the impact of visible data; or its characteristic is sensitivity of primary elements originated by kamma sourcing from desire to see. Its function is to pick up [an object] among visible data. It is manifested as the footing of eye-consciousness. Its proximate cause is primary elements born of kamma sourcing from desire to see.[5]

See also


  1. Thupten Jinpa 2017, s.v. "The Five Sense Faculties".
  2. Mipham Rinpoche 2004, s.v. "The Aggregate of Forms".
  3. Unlike the other elements in this column, "space" is not considered a "primary" element but is identified as "derived material" (that is, derived from the four primaries of earth, water, fire and air). The space element is characterized by: "what delimits matter is called the element of space" (Upatissa et al., 1995, pp. 238, 240).
  4. This table is based on Upatissa et al. (1995), pp. 238–240.
  5. Vsm. XIV, 37 (trans. Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 443; square-bracketed text in original).


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