Six Kinds of Consciousness in Our 3-D World

Revised August 23, 2022

Having looked into the issue of the “awareness” or consciousness issue related to dimensions, we now turn to our familiar 3-D space. Even here, the possibilities are endless, as we see below.

1. We become aware of our surrounding “objects” (i.e., visual objects, sound, smell, taste, tangible objects) using the five “external senses” of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. We see visual objects with our eyes, sounds with our ears, smell with our nose, taste with the tongue, and touch or feel with our body.

  • Correspondingly, the Buddha stated that there is eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, and body-consciousness. The cognitive processes that involve those “five physical doors” are called five-door processes.
  • In addition to those five traditional physical senses, in Buddha Dhamma, there is the mind and the associated mind-consciousness since we are also conscious of mind-objects such as thoughts and visual images. The mind-consciousness is also involved in each of the five-physical-door processes.

2. Note that the Buddha did not mention the brain in the mind-consciousness, and he used the term “mental element” without mentioning the brain. This is because the mind belongs to the “manomaya kāya” and the brain belongs to the “physical body”; see, “Manomaya Kaya (Gandhabba) and the Physical Body.”

  • Also, note that five “indriya” (eye, ear, etc.) are not the physical eye, physical ear, etc. The five indriya, called internal rupa or pasāda rupa, are invisible and unknown to modern science. The physical eye is different from the cakkhu pasād rupa, but the physical eye is needed for seeing.
  • When one develops the mind, it is possible to see without the physical eye and much more (like beings in other realms). Similarly, the mind is not the brain, but the brain is needed for a normal human for mind to work.

3. Therefore, our five physical senses limit our consciousness; we perceive the “world” as we sense it with our five physical senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body.

  • The “world” or “the universe” is much more complex than we perceive. This is one reason we think everything around us is permanent and is why it is so hard for us to understand the true nature of “this world,” i.e., anicca, dukkha, anatta.
  • With our “enhanced consciousness” from our scientific and technological advances, we have recently realized that even our universe is not permanent; it came into being some 14 billion years ago and will eventually re-collapse or disintegrate.
  • Furthermore, as I mentioned elsewhere, we can still “see” only 4%-6%% of the “stuff” in the universe. The other 96% or so is termed “dark energy” and “dark matter” by scientists because we do not know what that 96% consists of; see “The Four Percent Universe” by Richard Panek (2011). Thus, even though we have vastly expanded our awareness, we are far from conscious of the “world as it is.”

4. In Buddha Dhamma, the above discussion with six sense bases applies specifically to humans, but in general applies to many but not all animals as well as other beings in the “sense sphere” (kāmaloka).

  • The Buddha categorized all the living beings subject to the rebirth process in the saṃsāra, and the categorization is according to consciousness. Beings in the other planes of existence have different consciousness than humans or animals.
  • For example, beings in the Arupaloka (“form-less sphere”) have only the mind consciousness since they do not have physical bodies. Before getting into that discussion, let us first discuss different aspects of consciousness that we see around us.

5. Even though the “beings” in the “sense-sphere” that includes humans and animals in general, have five external sense-doors (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body), there are many exceptions.

  • For example, some animals do not have fully-developed five external senses. Others have different types of sense doors; a jellyfish has eyes but no brain for information processing, so its visual consciousness is still very limited. It can distinguish between dark and illuminated areas, and that is about all. On the other hand, a dog has visual consciousness comparable to humans, and it can catch a rabbit by chasing it.
  • A bat does not have visual consciousness, so it cannot hunt during the daytime but has different consciousness using radar that enables it to hunt at night. So, it is clear that “consciousness” or “awareness” has many different “avenues” (for example, humans become aware of their surroundings by using sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and thoughts).
  • Lower life forms may have fewer avenues of consciousness, and the degree of consciousness can vary, too (a jellyfish has minimal visual consciousness). In a few cases, we may be less conscious than an animal. For example, a bat would be much more conscious about its dark surroundings than a human.

6. Even though most animals have the same five physical senses as humans, they are “aware” of only their immediate environment.

  • But contemporary humans are aware of a huge Black hole at the center of our Milky Way universe, millions of light years away.
  • Humans used to have much-limited awareness even a few hundred years ago, before the advent of the telescope and the microscope. Since then, humans have slowly built up our awareness using technology; see “Expanding Consciousness by Using Technology.”
  • However, we must remember that a complete theory of consciousness (Buddha Dhamma) was described by the Buddha 2500 years ago. It had been hidden for nearly 2000 years, at least in its pure form.

7. Therefore, it is clear that “the awareness’ or the “consciousness” can come in different flavors as well as different levels of intensity, even within the “sense sphere” (kāmaloka):

  • The humans and devas in the kāmaloka have the highest levels of consciousness (especially mind-consciousness).
  • In the “form-sphere” (rupa loka), the consciousness level, in general, is higher, even though they have only visual, auditory, and mind-consciousness; their minds are much higher.
  • The beings in the “form-less sphere” (arupa loka) do not have physical bodies at all and have highly developed minds and thus have even higher levels of consciousness.
  • Those three levels of consciousness are called lokiya (mundane).
  • Beings in the three mundane levels have finite lifetimes, and a given “being” wanders through all these different planes in the unfathomably-long saṃsāra (rebirth process). Even a sentient being born in the arupa loka may end up in the lowest level (apāya) in the kāmaloka, depending on the unspent kamma.

8. The higher levels of consciousness are supermundane or “beyond mundane” (lokuttara), and there are four levels of supermundane consciousness, with Nibbāna achieved by the Arahants being the highest.

  • The first three levels of supermundane consciousness are Stream Enterer (Sotāpanna), Once-Returner (Sakadāgāmi), and Non-Returner (Anāgāmi).
  • As one progresses on the Path, the consciousness starts to clear up, first by removing the five hindrances (panca nivarana) at the Sotāpanna stage.
  • The Arahant stage has purified consciousness. The undefiled mind becomes separated from any trace of matter (four great elements or mahā bhuta) at the death of the Arahant. Thus the Arahant is not reborn anywhere in the 31 realms, and his/her mind becomes free, Nibbāna.
  • All the suffering we experience is due to trying to satisfy the physical body attached to the mind. When attachment to that body (which is subjected to decay and death) is severed, the worldly bonds are broken (Nibbāna), and the mind attains the complete “cooled down” (Nivana); see “How to Taste Nibbāna,” and “Nibbāna – Is It Difficult to Understand?“.

Next, “Expanding Consciousness by Using Technology“, ……….

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