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Modes, tools, elements & characteristics of abstract perceptions & concrete conceptions

Even in some current spiritual literature one is often warned about the use of the senses, one is often advised to withdraw from them or to transcend them, hence certain meditational or spiritual practices aimed at reducing sensorial involvement. This advice is based on remarks made by certain early commentators on ancient oriental wisdom texts. However, their commentaries, many of them initially appearing in marginal notes that over time came to be copied into the main texts, show that they did not fully comprehend the initial and original meaning of the ancient teachings.

In spite of what those later teachers suggest, the use of the senses does not go against nature ... neither physical nor spiritual nature.

That they "might," is a sentiment one still sees expressed and professed too often in ill-formed understandings of (especially) Buddhist scriptures, but also, I might add, very often in Christian and Hindu spiritual literature and teachings.

In ancient Hindu and Buddhist key scriptures, the notion of sense faculties is part of an integrated understanding of the world and the way humans perceive (abstractly) and conceive (concretely). This understanding is expressed by the Sanskrit word skandhas. This ancient wisdom tradition was initially transmitted orally and later came to be transcribed manually and copied many times over. (Hence the occurrence of errors, omissions and many ill informed marginal additions).
Many of the early texts recognize five skandhas, and they comprise of the following five sets of distinctions (notice the concordance in the vertical as well as horizontal order):
  1. Elements: earth, water, fire, air, space,
  2. Aggregates: solid, liquid, plasmic, vapor, sound,
  3. Conceptual descriptors: shape, formation,appearance, sentiment, sense consciousness.(1)
  4. Senses: touch, taste, sight, scent, hearing,
  5. Sense Organs: hands, mouth, eyes, nose, ear.
Notice also that the above five series of skandhas can be divided into two groups: numbers 1, 2 and 3 are the material and conceptual skandhas that are perceived, and 4 and 5 are the facultative skandhas that are used to perceive with.

When the Heart Sutra (a most important Buddhist source text, littered though with later external intrusions) refers to the skandhas and claims that they are "empty just as form is empty," it refers at first to the faculties of perception. They are indeed empty in the sense that, as they are instruments to measure(2) with, they are initially without data and thus "empty." Whatever data they register, subsequently goes to the "sixth sense," the faculty of mentally gathering together the fragmented information that was supplied by the sense organs. (The Buddha identified the sixth sense as such.)
The Heart Sutra claims correctly that "what-we-measure-with" is empty and "that-what-is-measured" is form. The synthesis of this culminates in the "Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form" mantra, which, by the way, is not to be seen as a "magic" mantra, but as a clear statement expressing the deep understanding of how humans abstractly perceive and concretely conceive in this world.


Notes:
(1) According to the Buddhist Pali Code: the five attributes or Pañca khandha: rūpā, sankhāra, sañña, vedanā, viññāna.
(2) Etymologically the Sanskrit word maya means measurable matter, not illusion as it is currently often misinterpreted.

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