Six Senses

by William Toyo Sensei

food on tbale

Most all my adult life I have relied on my senses as a chef, and working in the food industry, wine industry, and now the olive oil industry. My mother being a great cook and having a degree in food science made an impression on me at a young age. While in the kitchen literally hanging onto her apron at the ripe old age of six, she would encourage me to taste and smell everything being prepared, and not only concentrate on smell and taste but also be mindful of the sensations. In Buddhism you will sometimes hear the term The Six Doors of the Senses. The six sense bases are called ‘sense doors’. The term door is used for these six sense bases. Literally it is translated into door. Eye is a sense door, ear is a sense door, nose is a sense door, tongue is a sense door, body is a sense door, and mind is a sense door. So what I now know now is the importance of how and when to close these doors in order to not become fooortattached, not to crave, and become dependent. That’s why you must close these doors. So you must close all these six doors with mindfulness, which is the sixth door. In most Buddhist traditions this is very important training that monk’s will endure. The Buddha said ‘whatever you see must be noted or mindful of, as it is. Whatever you hear must be mindful of or noted. Whatever you smell must be observed. Whatever you taste you must be aware of. Whatever you touch must be noted. Whatever you think about must be watched, as it is. If you open the door then all these mental defilements are waiting there outside the door to come into the mind, sorry, worry, anxiety, stress, anguish – a lot of suffering coming into your mind through these six doors. Most of the time we are not even aware of this happening. This is very similar in what we do in practicing mindfulness meditation, thoughts come in and then we throw them out. This is very important because I use my sense of smell and taste and mindfulness each day, it is part of my job and I teach others on sensory evaluation. While in the wine industry I was once persuaded to enter the California Wine Tasting Championships. Since I worked in the industry I had to register in the professional division. You were required to blind taste 4 whites and four reds and you had to determine their varietal, appellation, vintage, and a bonus if you could identify the producer, well to my surprise, I won thanks to listening to my mom at six years old and mindfulness and having tasted and evaluating a lot of bottles We can distinguish only five different tastes:  bitter, sweet, unami (savory), sour, and salty. There are five different types of taste receptor cells – one type for each of the five tastes.  Signals from the tongue travel through the brainstem, and are processed in several regions of the brain. Our brains incorporate smell, texture, taste, and other information to create our experience of flavor. When I was at U.C. Davis there was a previous estimate of 35,000 scents. A new study that just came out states that the human nose has roughly 400 types of scent receptors that can detect at least 1 trillion different odors, yes one trillion. What the nose knows might as well be limitless, researchers suggest. In Buddhism we find the six senses discussed in many texts and sutras. The Heart Sutra and 12 links of Dependent Arising, The Four Noble Truths come to mind. Also in the sutras, we learn that everything is found within the eighteen realms of elements composed of: the six sense organs, the six sense objects, and the six-sense consciousness.

The Eighteen Realms of Elements

Eyes form sight (eye consciousness)

Ears sound hearing (ear consciousness)

Nose smell olfaction (nose consciousness)

Tongue taste tasting (tongue consciousness)

Body touch touching (somatosensory Consciousness)

Mind object of mind mind consciousness

Not one of these realms can exist by it; each can only inter-be with every other realm. Master your senses, what you taste and smell, what you see, what you hear. In all things be a master of what you do and say and think. Be free. Quieting your body. Quieting your mind. By your own efforts Waken your senses, make them your own. They will always sustain you. Watch yourself, and live joyfully. I recently had a experience that led me to this discussion. In the eighteen realm there is nothing that is permanent; eyes are impermanent and always in the process of changing. A few weeks ago I started waking up seeing two large black shadows obscuring my vision and everything around me had an orange tint. These two hungry ghosts would hang around for about 30 to 45 minutes and then my sight would gradually return to semi normal. Unfortunately, this was on a Friday and the Doctors office was closed, the weekend and Monday were a holiday. So I called my doctor on Tuesday He said to come right in. When I told him what was happening he sent me straight down to the ophthalmologist. The specialist examined me and I could see the puzzlement his face, that this was maybe the first time he had seen this, after a long pause I heard the one word I did not expect or want to hear, he said I am leaning toward Macula, eye 2Why would anyone do that, he might as well said, you might be going blind, Why not say I need to run some more tests. I’m thinking of the saying “believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see, and you must not take everything to be true that is told to you. So now I am waiting for approval for an optical coherence tomography test. So the jury is still out there. But here is some good news, I went home and started some deep mindful meditation rested and the next morning the hungry ghosts were gone at lest for now. Anyway I already have two Seeing Eye dogs, Bijoux and Dante, eighty percent of my Dharma comes from just watching them each day, they are my Zen Masters. Which made me come up with this thought:  Sight, Smell, Taste, Touch, and Hearing. What if one day you woke up and could no longer see, hear, taste, touch, or smell anything? How would you react? Most of us probably would be in denial. We wouldn’t even know how to react. We take many things for granted. Our senses are some of them. What If you had to do without one, which would it be?

For me, I would choose to give up the sense of taste, I love food, but going back to what I was explaining about taste and smell, we know that more than 80% of what we think of, as ‘taste’ is really ‘smell’. When you eat something, smells travel through a passage at he back of the throat called the retro nasal passageway to the olfactory bulb in your nose, so now I can start concentrating on those one trillion odors out there to be found.

What’s really interesting that if we  one or more of the 5 senses, others are compensated with a so-called “superpower” effect. When the brain is deprived of input in one or more of the sensory modalities, it is capable of reorganizing itself to support and augment other senses. This is known as the “superhero effect”.

So I’m going to leave you with a poem, that I believe is by a Chinese poet, that I keep tucked away in Rev. Gyomay’s commentary of the Heart Sutra which I carry with me at all times.

I could have just read only the poem for my Dharma Glimpse and it would have explained much of what I have just said on the five senses and mindfulness.

                                 The five colours blind the eye.

The five tones deafen the ear.

The five flavors dull the taste.

Racing and hunting madden the mind.

Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the wise person is guided by what she knows

And not by what she sees.

She lets go of ‘that’ and chooses ‘this’.


So be it!



William Toyo Sensei is a Lay Minister with the Bright Dawn Way of Oneness Sangha.  To learn more please visit us here.



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