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

Revised August 4, 2021; July 1, 2022

1. Viññāṇa is unique to sentient beings. Plants are alive but have no viññāṇa; 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 viññāṇa.

  • This purest level of viññāṇa (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 Viññāṇa (Consciousness) Arises.” To emphasize, a pure citta arises with universal cetasika; a citta always has those 7 cetasikā.

However, a citta 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! See the previous post:  “Thoughts (Citta), Consciousness (Viññāṇa), and Mind (Hadaya Vatthu) – Introduction.”

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

  • Viññāṇa 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 viññāṇa. Words like citta, viññāṇa, mano, as well as cakkhu viññāṇa, sota viññāṇa, etc., and vipāka viññāṇa 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 Pāli. But each term has its own “subtle identity,” and as we discuss more, those subtle differences will become clear.

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

  • The same problem is encountered by those who speak the Sinhala language because there the word “sitha” (සිත) is used on many occasions to represent the Pāli words citta, mano, and viññāṇa. Similarly, in Sinhala, “yati sitha” (යටි සිත) is used to denote the subconscious.
  • This “subconscious” in English (as introduced by Sigmund Freud) is not a separate citta (there can be only one citta at a time). But, each citta can have “layers of consciousness”; the manasikāra cetasika plays a big role here.
  • For example, at a given time, we may have several “subconscious” viññāṇa (expectations): 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 each citta. If we see a car on the road that looks like the car we are interested in, the viññāṇa alerts us to it, and we 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 Paṭicca Samuppāda or tanha, it is best to use the Pāli words and comprehend their meanings; those keywords convey deep meanings that may take several words or even sentences in any other language to get the idea across.
Types of Viññāṇa associated with Kamma and the Sense Doors

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

4. First, we can categorize them according to kamma (or saṅkhāra) associated with the viññāṇaKamma viññāṇa and vipāka viññāṇa. 

Let us describe in plain English what these terms mean.

  • We can put viññāṇa into two categories: Those viññāṇa that arise while doing a kamma (saṅkhāra) is a kamma viññāṇa. For example, when one steals something, one has an awareness of that; that is the “viññāṇa that one is stealing.”
  • Then some arise as kamma vipāka, and thus we do not have much control over them; they just happen to us and are called avyākata viññāṇa or vipāka viññāṇa. I like the term vipāka viññāṇa than avyākata viññāṇa 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 viññāṇa (seeing something) and also a vipāka viññāṇa (due to a kamma vipāka).

5. When traveling by car and looking out of a window, we see many different things. But most of it we do not pay any attention to, even though we are “aware” that we see things. Those are vipāka viññāṇa, 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 focus on that and may keep looking at it until it moves out of our range. That is a vipāka viññāṇa that triggered a “gati” in us; it was of interest. And it could put us in a position to acquire more kamma by initiating a kamma viññāṇa. An easy way to remember is that “kamma viññāṇa” are those arising via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa” in Paṭicca Samuppāda; see #6 below.
  • 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 saṅkhāra (i.e., generating kamma) based on that “seeing event.” Thus such thoughts (or viññāṇa)  that followed the initial vipāka viññāṇa of “seeing the house” are kamma viññāṇa.
  • Our life experiences belong to basically one of those two categories.

5. Vipaka viññāṇa arise with sensory input; only these can be truly called “consciousness.” We can differentiate them into six categories, this time based on the sense door: thus we have cakkhu viññāṇa (vision consciousness), sota (sound), ghana (smell), jivha (taste), kaya (touch), and mano (mind) viññāṇa (consciousnesses).

  • In the previous example, both types of viññāṇa were all initiated by cakkhu viññāṇa, a “seeing event or consciousness.” At the kamma viññāṇa stage, they turned to an “expectation” (more than consciousness) because those thoughts about acquiring a house originated in our minds.
  • Thus if you contemplate a bit on this, you can see that we can put ALL our experiences into one of those two “divisions,” i.e., we can analyze them to be in the vipāka viññāṇa or kamma viññāṇa category.

6. Let us discuss something fundamental to Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • The Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra”, and “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa”. This viññāṇa is NOT a vipāka viññāṇa, but only a kamma viññāṇa.
  • When we see something, hear something, etc., those are things that HAPPEN to us. Thus there is no avijjā (or ignorance) initiating that consciousness. There is no kusala-mula or akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle associated with such a consciousness (vipāka viññāṇa).
  • 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 saṅkhāra (kamma) event: now this new event initiates an Idappaccayātā Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra,” which leads to, “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa,” i.e., this viññāṇa was initiated by a saṅkhāra; thus it is a kamma viññāṇa.

7. Usually, what happens in our lives is that we are bombarded with sensory inputs via all six senses. We tend to turn our attention to many because we are afraid that “we may miss out on something.” This is the root cause of 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.

  • We can reduce this effect by avoiding busy environments (i.e., going to a secluded place). 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 “peace of mind” if the mind is burdened with greed, hate, and ignorance (wrong vision or micchā diṭṭhi).

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

  • Even before any of the “magga phala” is attained, one can easily get to samādhi and then to jhānā by gradually getting rid of the defilements associated with “wrong vision”  just by learning Dhamma (mainly anicca, dukkha, anatta).
  • Then we can reduce the number of different types of kamma viññāṇa going through the mind (“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 kamma viññāṇa that we burden our minds with unnecessarily.
  • And it is important to realize that it is not easy to 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. Viññāṇa, Thoughts, and the Subconscious“, ……………….

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