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Human Existence in Terms of
Twelve Spheres and Eighteen Elements
Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu

Supplementary to the analyses of physico-psychological combination (naamaruupa), five aggregates constituting personality (pa~nca-kkhandha // pa~nca-skandha), and six elements (cha-dhaatu), the Buddha utilizes the method of twelve bases or spheres (aayatana) and eighteen elements (a.t.thaarasa dhaatu) [S. II. 140-47; M. III. 239-40; A. I. 175] to refute an eternal self (aatman). These analyses is aimed at showing (i) a wedded relationship between human personality and the external world, and (ii) that relationship is in fact a conditioned process or function of consciousness or sense experience.

Aayatana literally means place, sphere, or gateway of meeting, place of birth or production. It is also known as the locus, ground, or source for happening. In Buddhist terminology, it stands for the sphere, ground, gateway, or locus of meeting between the six sense-organs and their corresponding objects. Vasubandhu renders it as the gate of production of the citta and cetasika dhamma [W. M. McGovern (1979): 95]. These are the gateway of sense experience or the ground for bringing about consciousness [Cf. D. J. Kalupahana (1987): 29; W. M. McGovern (1979): 95]. The twelve spheres (aayatana) consist of the six sense-organs and their corresponding six-data or objects. The six sense-organs are eye (cakkhu), ear (sota), nose (ghaana), tongue (jivhaa), body (kaaya) and mind (mano). Their corresponding six sense-objects are form (ruupa), sound (sadda), smell (gandha), taste (rasa), tangible (pho.t.thabba) and concepts (dhammaa).

Dhaatu is that which bears its own characteristics or intrinsic nature (attano sabhaavam dhaarentiiti dhaatuyo) [Vism. p. 411]. According to Vasubandhu, the term means species, genus or clan (dhaatu.hgotraartha.h) or element [Ko'sa. V. 33. Cf. W. M. McGovern (1979): 95]. This means that each dhaatu bears its own nature and no dhaatu bear the same nature. The eighteen elements (a.t.thaarasa dhaatu) are nothing but twelve spheres plus their corresponding six resultant cognitions or consciousnesses (vi~n~naa.na) [S. II. 140. Cf. M. I. 259-60], which arise out of the contact between the six sense-organs and their corresponding six sense-data or objects. The six sense-organs are called internal bases (ajjhattika-aayatana). The six sense-data or objects are called external bases (baahira-aayatana). The six resultant consciousnesses (vi~n~naa.na) are visual consciousness (cakkhu-vi~n~naa.na) auditory consciousness (sota-vi~n~naa.na), olfactory consciousness (ghaana-vi~n~naa.na), gustatory consciousness (jivhaa-vi~n~naa.na), tactile consciousness (kaaya-vi~n~naa.na) and mental consciousness (mano-vi~n~naa.na). The discussion above can be formulated in the following Diagram.

 Relation between Twelve Spheres and Eighteen Elements

022-tnt-twelve.gif (11163 bytes)

The relationship between the five aggregates of human personality (pa~nca-kkhandha // pa~nca-skandha) and twelve spheres (aayatana) as well as eighteen elements (dhaatu) is epistemologically significant. While twelve spheres (aayatana) are located within the category of as eighteen elements (dhaatu), the six sense-organs belonging to both of twelve spheres (aatayana) and of eighteen elements (dhaatu), and sixfold consciousness (vi~n~naa.naa) of eighteen elements (dhaatu) can be placed under the category of five aggregates of human personality (pa~nca-kkhandha // pa~nca-skandha). Again, while the first five sense-organs (viz., eye, ear, nose, tongue and body) and the corresponding five objects (baahira-aatayana) (viz., the visible, sound, smell, taste and touch) [Y. Karunadasa (1989): 36 ff] plus some of mental objects (dhamma-dhaatu / dhammaayatana) are located within the aggregate of form (raapakkhandha), the sixth faculty (viz., mind, mano) along with some corresponding objects, namely concepts or ideas (dhamm ), plus the sixfold consciousness (vi~n~naa.na) within the category of the aggregate of consciousness (vi~n~naa.nakkhandha). This means that the twelve gates (aatayana) and eighteen elements (dhaatu) are located within the category of five aggregates. This relation can be illustrated through the following Table.

Relation between Naamaruupa, 5 Khandha, 6 Aayatana and 18 Dhaatu

Naama-Ruupa 5 Khandha 6 Dhaatu 12 Aayatana 18 Dhaatu
Ruupa 1. Aggregate of form (ruupa-kkhandha) 1. earth (pa.thavi)
2. water (aapo)
3. fire (tejo)
4. air (vaayo)
5. space (akaasa)
1. eye (cakkhu)
2. ear (sota)
3. nose (ghaa.na)
4. tongue (jivhaa)
5. body (kaaya)

7. the visible (ruupa)
8. sound (sadda)
9. smell (gandha)
10. taste (rasa)
11. touch (pho.t.thabba)
12. some dhamma

1. eye (cakkhu)
2. ear (sota)
3. nose (ghaa.na)
4. tongue (jivhaa)
5. body (kaaya)

7. the visible (ruupa)
8. sound (sadda)
9. smell (gandha)
10. taste (rasa)
11. touch (pho.t.thabba)
12. some dhamma

Naama 5. Aggregate of consciousness
(vi~n~naa.na -kkhandha)

along with

2. aggregate of feeling (vedanaa-kkhandha)
3. aggregate of perception (sa~n~naa-kkhandha)
4. aggregate of disposition (sa"nkhaaraa-kkhandha)

6.consciousness (vi~n~naa.na) 6. mind (mano)

12. some dhamma

6. mind (mano)

12. some dhamma
13. visual consciousness
14. auditory consciousness
15. olfactory consciousness
16. gustatory consciousness
17. tactile consciousness
18. mental consciousness

Among these, mind (mano) plays in important role as coordinator of the other faculties. Mind (mano) works as their common ground of resort (pa.tisarana) enjoying their fields of perception (visaya), while they themselves can not do so with one another [S. V. 218].

The eighteen elements (dhaatu) are believed as the possible diversity in elements (dhaatu) to have in human personality [S. II. 148-9]. According to the Buddha because of the diversity in elements arises diversity of contact. For example, eye-contact arises because of the eye-element, not of ear-element, nose-element, tongue-element, body-element or mind-element. This arising is held true with the other five [S. II. 140-1]. Again, while the diversity in elements arise diversity of contact, because of diversity of contact arises diversity of feeling. For example because of eye-contact, feeling produced by eye-contact arises [S. II. 142]. This process of experience, depended entirely upon the senses and sense-objects, is again described clearly by the Buddha in the Madhupi.n.dika-sutta of the Majjhima Nikaaya [M. I. 111-2], where the Buddha stresses the important of coming together (sa"ngati) of sense organs and its corresponding objects in conditioning perceptual consciousness, and the interaction between feeling (vedanaa), perception (sa~n~naa), reasoning or reflection (vitakketi) and consciousness (vi~n~naa.na).

By analyzing human personality into aggregate-sphere-element triad (khandha-aayatana-dhaatu), Buddhism has no difficulty in acknowledging the changeable, impermanent and non-substantial reality of man and his world. These analyses are aimed at showing that there does not exist an unity (ekatta) or a substance, or an atta/ aatman or a jiiva, which is expressed in twenty different ego-views (sakkaayadi.t.thi) [E.g. M. I. 300; M. III. 17-8; S. III. 102; Dhs. 182. Cf. M. III. 188, 227; S. III. 3, 16, 96]. Being or existence is devoid of substance, but composed of a variety of conditioned factors [M. I. 70]. The so-called self/ soul/ I is "nothing but conditioned processes" [M. I. 191: Pa.ticcasamuppannaa kho panime yadiyaa pa~ncupaadaanakkhandhaa], and "in such a mass of conditioned processes there is no being is found" [S. I. 135: "In the mass of conditioned processes there is no being is found" suddhasasankhaarapu~njo yaa, nayidha sattuupalabbhati].

Abbreviations and References

I. Texts

A. = A"nguttara-Nikaaya, I-V, ed. R. Morris, E. Hardy, C. A. F. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1885-1900)

D. = Diighanikaaya, I-III, ed. T. W. Rhys David and J. E. Carpenter, (London: PTS, 1889-1910)

Dhs. = Dhammasa"mnga.nii, ed. E. Muller. (London: PTS, 1885)

M. = Majjhimanikaaya, I-IV, ed. V. Trenckner, R. Chalmers, Mrs. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1888-1902)

S. = Sa"myuttanikaaya, I-V, ed. L. Feer and Mrs. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1884-1898)

Vbh. = Vibha"nga, ed. and tr. by S. K. Mukhopadhyaya. (Santiniketan: 1950)

2. Studies

Karunadasa, Y. (1989). Buddhist Analysis of Matter. Singapore: Buddhist Research Society, 1st Ed. 1967.

McGovern, W. M. (1979). A Manual of Buddhist Philosophy. Delhi: Nag Publishers, 1st Ed. 1872.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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