The Eighteen Elements

The Eighteen Elements 

We have spoken of the five skandhas and the twelve entrances. Now there is another analysis—into eighteen ‘distinctions’. As previously explained, there are six roots—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind—and six fields—form, sound, smell, taste, touch and dharma-object—and six consciousnesses —eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body- consciousness and mind-consciousness. It is the interaction of these three sets—roots, fields and consciousnesses—which manifests the world of illusion at every moment.

A full explanation is technical and may seem a bit complicated, but here it is: The twelve entrances were the six roots and the six fields. Now we can also take as subject the six roots and six consciousnesses, the object being just the six fields. We have in fact analysed the mind-root out into six consciousnesses, from eye-consciousness to mind-consciousness. At first it was the six roots which were the subject and the six fields the object, but in the classification into eighteen, the six roots and six consciousnesses as subject stand opposed to the six fields as object. And in the six consciousnesses, the eye-consciousness and the next four are functions of simple direct consciousness.

It is said that the eye sees shape and sees colour, the ear hears sounds. Now the simple direct consciousness of what is seen by the visual sense or what is heard by the auditory sense is a function

of the mind, and these functionings are called the five consciousnesses of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. The function of the sixth consciousness is to discriminate what has been simply taken in by the other five, discriminating into good and bad, painful and pleasant and so on.

The first five copiousnesses directly perceive things. Something is apprehended as white; now what is that which is simply apprehended as white? The function of the sixth consciousness is to consider and discriminate the whiteness.

So that besides the twelve entrances—six roots and six fields—there is tins more detailed analysis of the mind into the six consciousnesses. When the Sutra says: ‘In Emptiness there is neither form nor Vedana, Sanjna, Sankara nor Vijnana,’ it negates the five skandha-aggregates. Then ‘no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body nor mind, neither form, sound, smell, taste, touch nor object of mind’ negates the twelve entrances. Then ‘no element of eye, nor any of the other elements including that of mind- consciousness’ negates also the eighteen ‘distinctions’.

Taken together, what we label skandhas, entrances, distinctions, are the form of our illusory clinging to self.

In whatever way the analysis may be made, whatever is on the basis of subject-object has no real existence or real nature. It is in order to show how on tins no-reality arises our illusory clinging to self that the analyses are made. When everything has been analysed there is no definite self anywhere, but although there is none, a clinging attachment to self somehow arises, as if there were one. And on that, by the connection of subject and object, we are being impelled all the time by sounds which have no reality in them, by forms which have no reality in them, and thus pulled along we are committing sins in our wretched human life.

When in the midst of this life we gradually come to recognize what we are, then the grace of holy Kannon manifests and we have a taste of Emptiness without any burdens.

Living without carrying things means that, though we weep, the weeping leaves no trace, and when we laugh it leaves no trace of the laughter. This is the meaning of the continual ‘No, no’. The ordinary man’s delusion is in fact a deep-seated clinging to life. The desire just to live long whatever may happen is the illusory attachment to life. But in the midst of that very clinging is the world of release, and in fact, the deeper the clinging to life, the more clearly is release known. The stronger the passions show themselves to be, the deeper the experience of the Buddha salvation. The spirit of the Bodhisattva is to find salvation in living itself.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect

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