2. Vinnana (Consciousness) can be of Many Different Types and Forms

1. Vinnana is unique to sentient beings. Plants are alive but have no vinnana; they respond to the environments but are not capable of “thinking”. Sentient beings are aware that they are alive and just that basic awareness of “being alive” is not really a vinnana.

  • This purest level of vinnana (the awareness of being alive) is called the “citta” (pronounced “chiththa”) stage.
  • A citta arises with 7 concomitant “mental factors” (cetasika, pronounced “chetasika”), and this is described in “Citta and Cetasika – How Vinnana (Consciousness) Arises”. To emphasize, a pure citta arises with those universal cetasika; a citta always has those 7 cetasika.

However, the citta of a sentient being gets “contaminated” by other cetasika as soon as it arises. Within the lifetime of a citta (which is less than a billionth of a second), it progressively gets contaminated by “good” or “bad” cetasika, and this happens in nine stages! This was discussed in the previous post:  “Thoughts (Citta), Consciousness (Vinnana), and Mind (Hadaya Vatthu) – Introduction“.

2. As discussed in  “Citta and Cetasika – How Vinnana (Consciousness) Arises”, it is those additional cetasika that provide “color” to a citta: if a set of “good cetasika” arise with the citta it becomes a “good thought” or a “good vinnana”; if it is a set of “bad cetasika” , then the thought or the vinnana is bad (those cetasika do not mix). Also, there are neutral thoughts or neutral vinnana that are neither good nor bad.

  • Vinnana can be experienced in many different ways; since it is hard to come up with different names for each case, they are all bundled together as vinnana. Words like citta, vinnana, mano, as well as cakkhu vinnana, sota vinnana, etc and vipaka vinnana are used in different contexts and that can be confusing to many regardless of whether their native language is English, Chinese, or even Sinhala, which is the closest language to Pali. But each term has its own “subtle identity” and as we discuss more, those subtle differences will become clear.

3. Vinnana is often translated as “consciousness” but vinnana can be used in many different contexts like “subconscious” or “layers of consciousness”.

  • The same problem is encountered by those who speak Sinhala, because there the word “sitha” is used in many occasions to represent the Pali words citta, mano, and vinnana. Similarly, in Sinhala “yati sitha” is used to denote the subconscious.
  • This “subconscious” in English (as introduced by Sigmund Freud) or “yati sitha” in Sinhala is not a separate citta (there can be only one citta at a time). But, each citta can have “layers of consciousness”; the manasikara cetasika plays a big role here.
  • For example, at a given time we may have several “subconscious” vinnana: we may have plans to buy a certain car, getting ready to go on a trip next week, in the process of building a house, etc; all these are in the subconscious, and in each citta.  If we see a car on the road that looks like the car we are interested in, the vinnana alerts you to it, and you take a good look at it.
  •  As the Buddha advised bhikkhus, what really matters is to convey the meaning. Just like in the case of paticca samuppada or tanha, it is best to use the Pali words and comprehend their meanings; those key words convey deep meanings that may take several words or even sentences in any other language to get the idea across.

Types of Vinnana associated with Kamma and the Sense Doors

Vinnana is complex and can be presented in various different types and forms. We will start by looking at “two categories” of vinnana.

1. First, we can categorize them according to kamma (or sankhara) associated with the vinnanaKamma vinnana, vipaka vinnana, and kiriya (or kriya) vinnana.

Let us describe in plain English what these terms mean.

  • We can put vinnana into three categories in relation to kamma: Those vinnana that arise while doing a kamma (sankhara) is called a kamma vinnana. For example, when one steals something, one has an awareness of that; that is the “vinnana that one is stealing”.
  • Then there are those that arise as kamma vipaka, and thus we do not have much control over them; they just happen to us and are called avyakata vinnana or vipaka vinnana. I like the term vipaka vinnana than avyakata vinnana because then it is easy to differentiate those two kinds. For example, when one is walking on the road and sees something valuable on the roadside; that is a cakkhu vinnana (seeing something) and also a vipaka vinnana (due to a kamma vipaka).
  • The third type in this category are called kiriya (kriya) vinnana, and they are not connected to kamma. When we think, talk, or do something that does not involve kammically “good” or “bad”, those are done with kiriya vinnana. For example, when we think about the cleaning chores for the day, or ask someone what time it is, or walk to the kitchen to get a drink, all those are done with kiriya vinnana.

2. When we are travelling by a vehicle and are looking out of a window, we see many different things out there. But most of it we do not pay any attention, even though we are “aware” that we are seeing things. Those are vipaka vinnana, they are “presented to us”, but most of them may not interest us.

  • Then all of a sudden we see something that “piques our interest”, say a nice house by the roadside. Then we fix our attention on that and even may keep looking at until it moves out of our range. That is a vipaka vinnana that triggered a “gathi” in us; it was of interest. And it could put us in a position to acquire more kamma by initiating a kamma vinnana.
  • For example, if we really got interested in that house, we may start thinking about how nice would it be if we could build and live in a house like that. Now we are making sankhara (i.e., generating kamma) based on that “seeing event”. Thus such thoughts (or vinnana)  that followed the initial vipaka vinnana of “seeing the house” are kamma vinnana.
  • Our life experiences belong to basically one of those three categories.

3. All those  vinnana may also be described in another totally different form; they can be differentiated into six categories, this time based on the sense door: thus we have cakkhu vinnana (vision consciousness), and sota (sound), ghana (smell), jivha (taste), kaya (touch), and mano (mind) vinnana (consciousnesses).

  • In the previous example, the three types of vinnana were all initiated by cakkhu vinnana, a “seeing event or consciousness”. At the kamma vinnana stage, they became mano vinnana, because those thoughts about acquiring a house originated in our minds.
  • Then if another passenger touched us, we would turn and look at that person, because now we had a kaya vinnana (which was also a vipaka vinnana).
  • If that touching turned out to be done by accident, we just let go of it, and it was just a neutral event of seeing someone (kiriya vinnana).
  • However, if it was someone with whom we had a romantic relationship in the past, then we may start generating kamma vinnana (mano vinnana). In the same way, if it was someone with whom we have had a bad relationship, we may start generating another type of kamma vinnana (mano vinnana).
  • Thus if you contemplate a bit on this, you can see that ALL our experiences can be put into either of those two “divisions”, i.e., we can analyze them to be in vipaka vinnana, kamma vinnana, and kiriya vinnana categories or the sense consciousness categories.

4. There are other types of vinnana that we will talk about later, but for now let us discuss something that is really important to paticca samuppada.

  • The paticca samuppada cycle starts with “avijja paccaya sankhara”, and “sankhara paccaya vinnana”. This vinnana is NOT a vipaka vinnana or a kiriya vinnana, but only a kamma vinnana.
  • When we see something, hear something, etc., those are things that HAPPEN to us. Thus there is no avijja (or ignorance) initiating that consciousness. There is no paticca samuppada cycle associated with such a consciousness (vinnana).
  • However, if we now decide to act on it (say, take another look at it because we like it), then we may be initiating a sankhara (kamma) event: now this new event initiates a (pavutti) paticca samuppada cycle with “avijja paccaya sankhara”, which leads to, “sankhara paccaya vinnana”, i.e., this vinnana was initiated by a sankhara; thus it is a kamma vinnana.

5. Usually, what happens in our lives is that we are bombarded with sense inputs via all six senses. We tend to turn our attention to as many as we can because we are afraid that “we may miss out on something”. This is the root cause for the lack of “peace” in our minds, because we are constantly moving our attention among the six senses, going back and forth. If we have too many “likings” our mind will be pulled in all different directions trying to follow all those sense inputs.

  • By avoiding busy environments (i.e., by going to a secluded place) we can reduce this effect. But, we still cannot “turn off the sixth sense input”, i.e., the mind, unless we purify our minds. This is the key to meditation. It is not possible to have a “peace of mind” if the mind is burdened with greed, hate, and ignorance (wrong vision or micca ditthi).

6. Thus an Arahant can have a peaceful mind even when in the busiest place. A Sotapanna can do that to a certain extent too.

  • Even before any of the “magga phala” are attained, one can easily get to samadhi and then to jhanas, by gradually getting rid of the defilements associated with “wrong vision”  just by learning Dhamma (mainly anicca, dukkha, anatta).
  • Then the number of different types of vinnana going through the mind will be reduced (“Sounds like my neighbor’s car leaving, I wonder whether she is going to the mall?”, “I wonder what (my enemy) is up to today?”, “I wish I could have a body like that!”, “How come I don’t have a nice house like that?”; these are all types of vinnana that we burden our minds with unnecessarily.
  • And it is important to realize that it is not easy to just turn those off; they WILL BE turned off automatically when we purify our minds first by learning Dhamma (“What is the use of thinking about unnecessary things? There are better things to think about that provide lasting happiness”).

Next, “3. Vinnana, Thoughts, and the Subconscious“, ……………….

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