Ch'an Newsletter - No. 80, August 1990

The Sense Organ of the Mind
(Lecture given on the Surangama Sutra by Master Sheng-yen on December 7, 1986)

The Buddha continues speaking to Ananda about the nature of the sense organs. In today's section of the sutra, he speaks about the sense organ of the mind itself.

The sutra follows the same format for the mind as it has done for the other senses. The mind, also, has three conditions associated with it. First, the duality of the sleeping and waking states. Second, the sense organ itself. Finally, the void.

In the sutra's terminology, the "waking state" refers to the mind when it functions in a controlled state, that is, the conscious thinking of the intellect; the "sleeping state" refers to the mind when in its uncontrolled, non-thinking state. Since the mind is not fully functioning as a sense organ (the second condition) in the sleeping state, we might ask who are we when we are asleep? Who are we when we are awake? Now if we examine the third condition, the void, we see that there is mind beyond both the waking and sleeping states.

If we examine all of these conditions associated with the sense organ of the mind, we see that no single condition is sufficient to give rise to the mind's function. For example, when someone is dead, the sense organ may still be intact, but it will not function. There will be no thinking and no dreaming. Thus the sense organ itself cannot give rise to the function of the mind. The sutra states that all arguments are false that seek to prove the existence of the mind by virtue of these conditions.

Why do we go to sleep? We close our eyes and our body falls asleep. But which part of the body falls asleep? We cannot say that the entire body falls asleep, because parts of it continue to function. And when we are awake, parts of the body may rest. Therefore, we can't really identify rest with sleep. Sleeping is concerned with the sense organ of the mind.

What do we mean by the sense organ of the mind. We know that our body has a nervous system which is controlled by our brain, but we do not know what part of the mind can he identified with the nervous system.

Sleep is necessary for ordinary people. But if you can substitute other organs for the function of sensing, sleep is not necessary. For example, ordinary beings use their ears to hear and their eyes to see. But other parts of the body can sometimes be used to sense sights and sounds. Not only practitioners, but even animals can sometimes do this. There are lower forms such as earthworms which have no specialized sense organs, but can survive quite well in response to their environment, as if they did have these organs. There are many martial arts stories that describe highly developed people, who, even if they are deaf or blind, can accurately sense what is around them. Some of the more fantastic stories may be the product of the writer's imagination, but there are people in real life, deaf people, for example, who can tell quite well where things are in relation to themselves.

I once met a man who was blind from birth, but he could distinguish a remarkable number of characteristics about the people he encountered. He could tell someone's age and details of his face simply from hearing him talk. When I asked him if he had really been blind from birth, he replied, "Yes, of course." I said, "Then how can you tell all those things?" He answered, "I use my ears. He also added that he was in touch with sensations in his body that would allow him to deduce what was going on around him. It was as if his body was a pair of eyes. Of course, this person is a monk; he has a calm mind. Ordinary people, who have their five senses intact, don't pay much attention to subtle bodily sensations. Because this monk was blind from birth, he had become highly conscious of minor sensations, and he had practiced diligently to sharpen his awareness.

There was a general who lived during the Northern and Southern Dynasties in China. He had started out as a bandit, and he was quite proficient in the martial arts. His hearing was particularly acute. He would dig a hole in his tent, listen, and in a short time he would be able to identify the movements of enemy troops. Because of this, he didn't have to rely on spies for his information.

There is also a piece of folk wisdom that says that ants will know when it's going to rain, and accordingly will move to a new location. Another saying has it that rats and mice can sense a fire before it begins.

During the Second World War there was a terrible fire in Chungking. A few days before it began, all of the rats in the vicinity suddenly crossed the Yangtze River. Although many of the rats died, most of them survived by holding onto one another by the ear or the tail in order to form a bridge to the other shore. This event was noted in local newspapers. A few days later the fire broke out as a result of Japanese bombing. Do you think some of the mice had been hiding in Japanese headquarters and heard the decision? No, there was really nothing spectacular about this event. It was just that the bodies of the mice were somehow aware of imminent disaster.

Why do we need sleep? It is because of our sense organs. When they tire, the body must rest. If you can use your sense organs interchangeably, allowing one to take over the function of another when the first grows weary, then you will never need to sleep. People who are just beginning meditation practice often ask, "Can I sleep less?" They have read in novels, especially martial arts novels, that you can remain awake almost indefinitely. In theory this is true. But you must practice to achieve such a state. Meditation requires effort. But if you can meditate without using your sense organs, then meditation can be like rest. If you can tell a sense organ to stop functioning, it will be at rest. If you could thoroughly master this technique, you would be able to carry on your daily tasks 24 hours a day, and there would be no need to even meditate.

A practitioner can reach a state where the sense organs are truly at rest. If you reach this point, you will need little sleep. Nevertheless, it will still be difficult for you to perform your everyday tasks. There are some animals who are forced to do without sleep, and they can survive in these circumstances, but their life span is quite short. Modern chicken farms keep their chickens awake and feed them continuously. The chickens can lay up to three eggs a day, but they do not live very long.

Lower animal forms can rest their sense organs and sleep less, but this is due, in part, to the fact that they lack the higher thinking functions possessed by humans. But humans cannot cut off these functions very easily.

Through dedicated practice you may go without sleep for as long as three months. But this is not something that just anybody can accomplish. In this practice the sense organs are not used at all. The practice consists of a solitary retreat that lasts three months. This is not an easy method. In the beginning you will want to sleep. You hold on to a rope suspended from the ceiling when you feel you are about to drop. You keep walking. You are not allowed to even sit. In three months you will have no desire to sleep at all.

There is another method. You just sit. You can sleep, but you do it sitting up. You don't lie down; you just sit and sleep. Your mind remains clear, but you do not use your sense organs. This is a good method. If you can train yourself in this way, your overall ability to reason and make judgments will be enhanced.

There is also a method of visualization whereby you imagine yourself in a bathtub with the water filled up to your head. You unplug the drain and let the water flow out slowly. You sense the water gradually receding until the bathtub is empty. You will feel no pressure at all. The sense of your body remains, but your mind is blank, clear, and highly aware. This is a method for calming and resting the mind. When the mind is empty, the sense organs are at rest. When you have a problem falling asleep or when you are particularly anxious, you can try this method. You can try it at home, but make sure that you are by yourself; it won't work with two people looking at each other. The length of time that it takes for the visualized water to drain out depends on how large or small a drain you imagine. You should try to avoid extremes. If you let the water out too fast, you won't experience the calming effect; and if you let it out too slowly, your mind will begin to wander.

Someone who is unable to let his sense organs rest may eventually loose his senses, that is, become insane. Even in mild cases where the sense organs are constantly active -- when there is a high level of tension and nervousness -- the body as a whole will become weakened.

I should point out that when the sutra refers to the sense organs and their functions, it refers to direct and indirect responses. Direct responses involve seeing and hearing, senses that function automatically. Indirect responses include the powers of reasoning and memory.

If you can control your sense organs, your practice is already at a good level. But if you cannot control them, then you are apt to become moody and unstable.

But what the sutra tells us is that the sense organs basically have no real existence. They seem to exist only because of the coming together of causes and conditions. But if the sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) are not real, then the sense objects (what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, and thought) are also illusory. The six sense organs and the six sense objects are referred to in the sutra as the twelve ayatanas, or entries.

I must emphasize that Buddhism does not deny the existence of real-life phenomena -- what common sense tells us we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think. We can accept the existence of these things. However, Buddhism does not consider these phenomena to have intrinsic existence. Because they are subject to change and influence, their existence is conditional. Even these conditions have no intrinsic existence. The existence of all of these things is only a conditioned, illusory idea.

From the point of view of ordinary sentient beings, these phenomena do exist. But from the enlightened point of view, they have no true existence. It is for this reason that there is really no basis for us to have attachments, and it is our attachments that are the source of all of our vexations.

Chan Newsletter Table of Content

Copyright © 2001
Dharma Drum Mountain