The Five Sense Consciousnesses

The consciousnesses are divided into two categories: “stable consciousnesses” and “unstable consciousnesses.” An unstable consciousness arises and vanishes straight away. After that, a new unstable consciousness arises which also vanishes straight away. A stable consciousness, however, lasts all the time. No matter what you are doing, it will not vanish. Nevertheless, it is much easier to recognize an unstable consciousness.

Six kinds of consciousnesses are categorized as unstable consciousnesses. These are the five sense consciousnesses and the mind consciousness. Again these can be divided into “thought-free” consciousnesses and one consciousness “involving thoughts.” All of the sense consciousnesses are thought-free, because they merely perceive their specific object without any kind of conceptual associations happening. The mere sense consciousnesses do not make up thoughts such as “That’s good” or “That’s bad.” At the moment of perception there is also no sensation of desire or anger. The mind consciousness, however, takes its form in connection with thoughts of attachment and aversion, thinking “That’s good,” “That’s bad,” “What’s that?” “I need this,” or “I don’t want that.” Therefore, it is called a consciousness involving thoughts.

In Tibetan the five sense consciousnesses are called the consciousnesses of the five gates. “Gate” is used here as an example. As with a house—if you want to go outside, you need a door to do so—so it is with each sense consciousness. It leaves through the gate of the eye to be able to perceive outer form, or through the gate of the ear to be able to perceive outer sound. In the same way the different inner consciousnesses leave through the gate of the body to clearly perceive an outer object. That’s why these consciousnesses are called the consciousnesses of the five gates.

Each of the five kinds of thought-free sense consciousness arises based on a specific sense faculty. First of all, the consciousness that is based on the eye faculty: It perceives visible form as its specific object of perception; that is, anything that arises as outer form. This consciousness is called the “eye consciousness” and its defining characteristic is “to see form.” Other than form, there is no sense object that it can perceive. It does not hear sounds, nor does it smell odors, recognize tastes, or sense any physical sensations. Generally this is so with any consciousness: it perceives just its own specific sense object. Thus it is the specific function of the eye consciousness to perceive outer form, and to do so it relies on the inner sense faculty of the eyes. This so-called eye faculty is an extremely subtle faculty within the eyes. As the eyeball is the basis for the eye faculty, it is thus called the “faculty basis.” The Buddha and all the siddhas who are endowed with extrasensory perception and who are able to work miracles described the eye faculty thus: the faculty that gives rise to the eye consciousness looks like a flax flower, blue and extremely small and subtle. However, it is no coarse form consisting of atoms, but a “clear form,” a manifestation of light. When a person dies, or when the sense organs are damaged and cease to function, the clear form of the sense faculty dissolves. It won’t remain. In a living person, however, it is present as a manifestation within the sense organ. Within the eyes, the eye faculty takes on the form of a flax flower.

The second of the five sense consciousnesses is the ear consciousness. It arises based on the sense faculty of the ears. It cannot view forms, nor can it perceive the other sense objects except for sound, since its specific object of perception is sound. But it can perceive sound of any quality, whether it is loud or low, pleasant or unpleasant. In general, the ear consciousness arises in our ears. Again, however, it is not the ears themselves, but the ear faculty that is within them that gives rise to the consciousness. It is described in the following way: the ear faculty is like the knotty protuberances in the bark of birch trees. Its clear form is also a manifestation of light. Though it is said to be a form, it is not a coarse but an extremely subtle form. When it is damaged, it dissolves without leaving a findable residue. Yet the ear consciousness can only perceive sound on the basis of this subtle light manifestation of the ear faculty.

The third consciousness, the nose consciousness, functions in the same way. It just perceives smells as its specific object, good smells, bad smells, natural smells and also manufactured smells. The perception of smells is based on the nose faculty, the subtle manifestation of light that resembles two parallel, extremely fine copper needles. In the sutras the Buddha describes them as copper-colored. Based on this nose faculty, the nose consciousness arises, and smells can be perceived.

The fourth consciousness is the tongue consciousness. It perceives only tastes as its specific object, and it is based on the tongue faculty. This faculty is described by the Buddha in the sutras and also by the siddhas who possess extrasensory perception: the sense faculty that gives rise to the tongue consciousness resembles the half-moon. It is found on the tongue as its faculty basis. This light manifestation gives rise to the tongue consciousness so that tastes such as sweet, sour, and so forth can be perceived as the specific sense objects.

The fifth consciousness is the body consciousness. It perceives everything physically tangible as its specific object, such as what is soft, hard, or rough. The body consciousness also arises based on an inner sense faculty, namely the body faculty. The sense faculties of the first four consciousnesses are specific faculties that are found in a special location within the body. They body faculty, however, is not specially bound to one location, but instead spread over the whole body from head to toe, except for the hair and nails. It also permeates the body from the outer skin to the inner organs, including the skeleton. That’s why everything tangible can be perceived both outwardly at the body surface and inwardly within the interior of the body itself. The body faculty is said to be like the covering skin of the bird “Soft to Touch,” and it takes shape and color according to the part of the body that it covers. At the skin it is skin-colored, and at the bones it is bone-colored. Here, also, the faculty is just a clear manifestation of light.

Without closer examination it seems to us as if we see something with our eyes. Since the eyeballs are the basis for the eye faculty, we consequently think that it is the faculty basis that would perceive form. However, the eye is of material form, a form made of atoms which cannot see in the least. Nevertheless, it is the abode of the eye faculty. Thus the question arises whether it is the eye faculty that perceives the outer forms. The sense faculty, however, cannot see, because it is a material form as well, though only a very subtle material form which gives rise to a consciousness that in its essence is clear and cognizing. It is a knowing with a clear and cognizing appearance. So it is not the eye itself that sees the form, but the eye consciousness. In the same way it is not the ear that hears the sound, but the ear consciousness, because the consciousness has a clear and cognizing appearance. The same is valid for all of the five senses. If we think the sense faculties of the body perceive the sense objects, that’s not true. They nevertheless constitute the basis for a consciousness to arise, and due to the arising of the consciousness the sense object is perceived. Thus perception can only function if three factors come together: an object, the corresponding sense faculty, and the corresponding consciousness. If, for instance, the object is a form with shape and color, and if it meets with the eye faculty, an eye consciousness can arise so that this form is perceived.