Book of Analysis, the sense bases (Vb2): translator's introduction

By Waltham St. Lawrence

(2) Analysis Of The Bases (Āyatanavibhaṅga).

What are bases? A base is that which, while in itself deriving from the four great essentials, possesses the special attribute of acting as a support, a foundation, a basis, a requisite condition for [xxvii] the unique quality or element (dhātu) characteristic of that particular grouping of the four great essentials.

Bases are of two kinds. (a) Those bases which, acting as a support for elements of consciousness, possess the property of enabling that consciousness to arise into activity when they are impinged upon by an appropriate stimulus. These are the sense bases, viz., eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. (b) Those bases which, as objects, act as supports for those unique qualities or elements (dhātu) which give to objects their innate properties of bringing the sense bases into activity when under appropriate conditions they impinge upon those bases. These are the object bases, viz., visible base, audible base, odorous base, sapid base, tangible base and ideational base.

Thus it is that out of the fundamental arrangement of aggregates there arise the more complex structures known as bases, each of which possesses a unitary quality differentiating it quite clearly and completely from the others, an absolute quality which cannot be described in more elementary form. In speaking of the six sense bases, however, it is not intended that in each case the whole sense organ as we ordinarily think of it is to be understood. Here in this second chapter dealing with the consideration of base, although there is a short Suttanta analysis, it is considered almost entirely from the aspect of Abhidhamma analysis. This means that it is to be interpreted only in its ultimate and technical sense. Sense base means, therefore, so far as location is concerned, that particular point, plane or area which forms a common frontier between the impact of an appropriate sense stimulus and the arising of a conscious state as the result of that stimulus. Thus, for example, it is not the whole organ of the eye with its iris, pupil, lens, humours, muscles and retina that is here intended, but only that extremely subtle point at which it may be said that the purely physical activity of visual stimulation ends and consciousness of that stimulation begins.

In five aggregate existence the six sense bases consist of material qualities derived from the four great essentials; however, from what has been said above it should be appreciated that the material qualities referred to are of an extremely subtle and special nature, for it is by way of these bases and their contact with the stimulus, or object, that active consciousness concerning the object is able to arise.

[xxviii] It will have been observed that although in saying above that the six sense bases are of a material nature the text of Vibhaṅga itself defines only five of these in direct terms of material qualities. Moreover, in the Couplet section of Interrogation in Analysis of the Bases (para. 171, section 2), mind base is clearly stated to be non-material. From whence then has there arisen the customary teaching that mind base is material also, to the extent that it is ordinarily referred to as heart base (hadayavatthu)? This has, in all probability, arisen from a passage in Paccayaniddesa (Paṭṭhāna Vol. 1, para. 8) where the following is written:

"The material quality supported by which mind element and mind-consciousness-element occur; that material quality is related to mind-element, mind-consciousness-element and to states associated therewith by way of (being) a support condition."

The reason for what might at first sight appear to be an inconsistency, lies in the fact that whereas in the case of the five physical senses their direct connection with matter and its derived qualities is obvious from the very presence of the organs concerned, the same cannot so readily be said when the question is of the arising of purely mental states from ideational objects. It is quite clear, for example, that in the case of conscious states arising in four aggregate (arūpa) existence no material base whatever can come into the question. In the case of five aggregate existence, however, and therefore because of the presence of the aggregate of material quality, there must be some connection, however tenuous, between purely mental activity and the body, otherwise there could be no bodily activity as the result of mental activity. When, therefore, it is said in Vibhaṅga that mind base is non-material, this is a perfectly correct statement, for active states of consciousness arise from the bhavaṅga phase of consciousness and not from matter. In five aggregate existence, the essential connection between purely mental activity and the aggregate of material quality is explained in the quotation from Paṭṭhāna repeated below:

"…that material quality is related to mind-element, mind-consciousness-element and to states associated therewith by way of (being) a support condition."

This is what is referred to as heart base, and is not considered to be matter in the gross form of the four great essentials but as [xxix] being one of the initial eighteen derived material qualities. In this sense only, viz., as a support condition in five aggregate existence, can mind-element, mind-consciousness-element and states associated therewith be said to have a physical base.