What does it mean to "guard the sense doors"? What is the practical application of this concept in daily life? For example, does this concept mean that a heterosexual male should entirely avoid looking at women?

Thank you


Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu answers a question about "guarding the senses" in this video (at time 34:40).

Guarding the sense doors is a way of protecting ourselves from being overcome by passion for the sensed object (which leads to dukkha). In his video Yuttadhammo mentions three ways to do this.

  1. Physically avoiding the object (in relation to your example, when on alms round monks may keep their eyes facing down to avoid lust from seeing a beautiful woman).

  2. By developing samadhi the mind is disconnected from the sense doors (only the sixth sense "thought" is present)

  3. By developing insight we know the inherent dukkha of sensed objects, therefore no passion arises for them when they are sensed.

The third approach is part of the goal, the first two are training practices to help us maintain a calm mind to achieve the goal.

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  • 3
    I also remember him saying something like "Guarding the sense doors doesn't mean to not let certain sights, sounds[...] in, but to not let your mind go out to them" (paraphrased) – OidaOudenEidos Oct 26 '16 at 18:41
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    He says that it might mean different things to different people, i.e. that different people at various levels of development might use different techniques ... and Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu suggests that the Buddha might then use a phrase like "guarding the senses" repeatedly, even though the phrase has these multiple meanings, so that the same message is suitable to a varied audience. – ChrisW Oct 26 '16 at 23:01

With each contact your perceive the experience: a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling arises which you also perceive as either favorable, unfavorable and neutral. "Guarding the sense door" is you are aware of the sensation that arose and the perception that arose. Ideally you should be equanimous towards this experience, i.e., not attached or averse to the sensation and stimuli and also realise the evaluation you have given and feed the perception. If not (i.e. you react with craving, aversion or ignorance) then fabrications form: in which case you have be be aware of the fabrications also. These manifest as physical feeling in the body, having the characteristics of the 6 elements; and the mental component has the content 50 cetasikas (52 - 2 = 50 as feeling and perceptions are also cetasikas) -- see section on The Cetasikas in The Abhidhamma in Practice by N.K.G. Mendis

Also note the initial experience, which even if you are have been equanimous has a bodily aspect which you have the characteristics of the elements. The sensation is three-fold (are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral). Likewise the contact, as well as the subsequent reaction of craving if present, has an impact in all aspects of the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness -- for more details on this see Satipatthana related Suttas and literature.

The framework to guard your senses is outlined in the Cha Chakka Sutta though there are more comprehensive dispositions also in other Suttas which covers other aspects also e.g. Satipatthana Sutta Dhammanupassana section.


Latent tendencies

LATENT TENDENCIES ARISING THROUGH THE EYE. Bhikshus, dependent on eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises.

When the three meet, there is contact. Dependent on contact, there is what is felt as pleasant, or as painful, or as neither pleasant nor painful.

When one is touched by a pleasant feeling, one delights in it, welcomes it, remains attached to it. Thus one’s latent tendency of lust (rāgânusaya) lies latent.

When one is touched by a painful feeling, one sorrows, grieves, laments, beats one’s breast and falls into confusion. Thus one’s latent tendency of aversion (paṭighânusaya) lies latent.

When one is touched by a feeling that is neither pleasant nor painful, one does not understand it as it really is, the arising, the passing away, the gratification, the danger, and the escape with regards to that feeling. Thus one’s latent tendency of ignorance (avijjā’nusaya) lies latent.

Bhikshus, that one could make an end of suffering here and now, without abandoning lust for pleasurable feelings, without removing aversion towards painful feelings, without uprooting ignorance towards feelings that are neither pleasant nor painful this is IMPOSSIBLE.


Abandoning the latent tendencies



Bhikshus, that one could make an end of suffering here and now, having abandoned lust for pleasurable feelings, having removed aversion towards painful feelings, having uprooted ignorance towards feelings that are neither pleasant nor painful this is POSSIBLE.


Also in many other suttas the following passage appears. The implication is do not crave and grasp the sensory experience.

Here, bhikshus, when a monk sees a form with the eye, he grasps neither its sign nor its detail.

So long he dwells unrestrained in that eye-faculty, evil, unwholesome states of covetousness and displeasure might overwhelm him, to that extent, he therefore keeps himself restrained.

He practises the restraint of it. He guards the restraint of the eye-faculty, he commits himself to the restraint of the eye-faculty.


Nimitta and Anuvyañjana by Piya Tan

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Sense-control is to experience things with mindfulness & wisdom.

Sense-control, too, has its nutriment; it is not without a nutriment. And what is the nutriment of sense-control? 'Mindfulness and clear comprehension,' should be the answer.

AN 10.61

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For example, does this concept mean that a heterosexual male should entirely avoid looking at women?

If I can add to the other answers, a book about Buddhism (that I read once long ago) had a photo (of a monk with a fan), whose caption said that Burmese monks use their fans to hide their eyes (e.g. hide from things or from people they don't want to be tempted by the sight of) when they're out in the world.

See this comment, I think that may be one technique among many.

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Your question is right at the center of "right effort" in the Noble Eightfold Path. Buddha talked about it many times in different ways.

And what is right effort? Here the monk arouses his will, puts forth effort, generates energy, exerts his mind, and strives to prevent the arising of evil and unwholesome mental states that have not yet arisen. He arouses his will... and strives to eliminate evil and unwholesome mental states that have already arisen. He arouses his will... and strives to generate wholesome mental state that have not yet arisen....

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  • I want to further add, Buddha compared guarding 5 sense gates to a turtle "retracting" all 5 limbs when it comes into contact with a fox. I was wondering about the tail (that would make 6 limbs?). Did Buddha forget? I looked closer at turtles and they don't retract tails, they fold it back. That is a quality exclusively to Buddha. He was mindful of everything he said and never misspoke once. – user5056 Nov 15 '16 at 20:26

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