Vinnana (Consciousness)

A. Base-Level of Vinnana

1. Vinnana is awareness: how one “sees” the world at a given moment; thus it is one’s experience at that moment. It also has some “expectation(s)” built in based on the experience.

  • Vinnana is “colored” by the mental factors, such as vedana, sanna, cetana (52 factors in all; see, “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“). When a number of people look at a given object, they perceive it in many different ways, and thus may generate different feelings, perceptions and intentions (sankhara). We will discuss the major mental factors in this section.
  • Like everything else, vinnana can change from moment to moment.

2. There are different “base levels” of vinnana according to the being’s existence (bhava). Thus the level of vinnana of a human being is much higher compared to that of an animal.

  • Among humans, there are sub-levels too: Vinnana is not directly correlated to one’s “book knowledge”; it relates to the level of understanding of the “true nature of the world”.
  • There are four definite levels of Vinnana according to the magga phala: Vinnana begins to ascend to higher levels starting at the Sotapanna stage, followed by the Sakadagami, Anagami levels, and culminating at the Arahant level. At the Arahant level one has totally purified vinnana (anidassana vinnana), which is also called panna (wisdom).
  • Thus, as one comprehends the true nature of this world (anicca, dukkha, anatta), one’s vinnana becomes more and more purified. Then, when one sees an object, for example, one’s perception of that object will be different. Whereas an immoral person may even kill another to get hold of a valuable object, an Arahant will have no desire to own anything — no matter how valuable it is.

3. Thus it is apparent why the “base level of vinnana” does not transfer from life-to-life. If a human dies and is reborn as a deer, that human level of vinnana (which was a result of the kammic potential of the kamma seed that led to that birth; see, “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, and Kamma Vipaka“) dies and a lower level vinnana associated with a deer becomes effective.

4. As long as one has not attained at least the Sotapanna stage, the “base level” of vinnana can be anywhere from that corresponding to the lowest realm (niraya) to the highest Brahma  level. It is completely determined by the particular kamma beeja grasped at the moment of death.

5. The value of a life can be roughly categorized by the “base level” of vinnana:

  • An Arahant is the highest since there are no defilements left. Anagami, Sakadagami, Sotapanna levels are successively lower. Those four are the highest any being can have.
  • Beings in the four arupa loka and the 16 rupa loka have vinnana not contaminated by both greed and hate. Those are jhanic states.  However, other than those who have attained magga phala (one of the four stages of Nibbana), beings in those realms have “vinnana levels” lower than that of even a Sotapanna (living in any of the realms).
  • Vinnana of a deva in any of the six deva lokas do not have hate.
  • Vinnana of a being in any of the four lowest realms (apayas) have all three kinds of defilements: greed, hate, and ignorance.
  • A human being presents a special case. A human can have all three (greed, hate, and ignorance) or can get rid of all three and become an Arahant.

6. The kamma vipaka associated with the killing of a being will be different depending on the “level of vinnana” of the being. Thus killing of an Arahant is the worst, and then the severity of the kamma decreases through Anagami, Sakadagami, and Sotapanna stages.

7. It is important to realize that hurting the feelings of a human being could have worse consequences than killing an animal. This does not mean it is OK to kill animals. Even among animals the level changes, but we do not have capability to assess such variations.

8. We need to be aware that  our higher level of consciousness (vinnana) is limited to this life. In the next life, we could be at the same level, higher, or even as low as one in the niraya. Until Nibbana is attained, all beings just wander around all 31 realms.

B. Vinnana During a Lifetime

1. What we described above is only one way to look at vinnana, mainly referring to the “base level” for different realms of existence. The “uppatti paticca samuppada” cycle describes how this base level of vinnana changes from life-to-life; see, “Akusala-Mula Paticca Samuppada“.

2. But within a given lifetime, say the human life, vinnana is normally used to convey the ever-changing “awareness” or “experience” as one goes through living. There are two types of vinnana possible:

  • Vinnana that arise due to past kamma (and the accumulated avijja) within a given lifetime. This is described in, “Akusala-Mula Pavutti (Pravurthi) Paticca Samuppda“. For example, when one SEES a eye-catching object, that is due to a kamma vipaka. Even an Arahant will see that it is a eye-pleasing object.
  • This is also described under the sub-heading “Vedana Arising from Kamma Vipaka” in “Vedana (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways“. So, there are multiple ways to describe the same phenomenon; this is an example of the wonderful self-consistency of Buddha Dhamma.
  • The other type of vinnana arises during a given lifetime when one is engaged in “making sankhara” via getting attached through greed and hate. In the above example of “seeing a eye-catching object”, one may generate feelings of attachment to that object and that would be making new vinnana via GENERATING sankhara. While we may generate such new vinnana based on the “seeing event”, an Arahant will not.
  • This is described in, “Vedana (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways“, under the sub-heading, “Vedana Arising from Sankhara (“San phassa ja vedana”).

C. Many Varieties of Vinnana During a Lifetime

1. The above discussion points out major attributes of vinnana. But vinnana can have many varieties depending on the situation. The Buddha gave the following example: regardless of whether it was started with wood, straw, paper, etc, a fire is a fire.

2. A major classification of vinnana (awareness) is according to which sense door was used: cakkhu vinnana (visual awareness) arises when one uses eyes to get information about an object. Similarly for sota, jivha, gandha, käya, and manö vinnana.

  • Another classification is according to whether the experience is pleasant (sukha), unpleasant (dukha), or neutral (upekkha). It is clear that this classification is very personal. Three people can look at a given person and generate these three types of vinnana.
  • Then there are kusala, akusala, or neutral (upekkha) vinnana. For example, one gives a meal to a hungry person with kusala vinnana; one steals with an akusala vinnana. One takes a bath with a (kammically) neutral vinnana. And based on those there will be vipaka vinnana.

Next, “Rupa (Material Form)“, …………

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