Viññāṇa – What It Really Means

May 26, 2017; revised May 16, 2020; February 2, 2023

Two Types of Viññāṇa

It is a good idea to read the post, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta),” first. More at “Essential Abhidhamma – The Basics.

1. So far, in this subsection on the mental aggregates, we have discussed sañña, védanā, and saṅkhāra in simple terms, mainly focusing on their relevance to staying on the Path. See, “Nāma & Rūpa to Nāmarūpa.” My main goal is to provide the key and essential aspects of these terms so that one can see “how to cool down the mind” and progress towards Nibbāna.

  • Viññāṇa can be said to encompass (include) all those three mental categories: sañña, védanā, and saṅkhāra. So, we can say that viññāṇa is the overall effect of our awareness encompassing our perceptions (sañña), feelings (védanā), and our likes and dislikes (saṅkhāra).
  • But viññāṇa represents a bit more — “our hopes and desires that we want to from this world.” That is the more critical aspect — which makes the connection with rūpa — that we need to understand, but first, we need to know that there are two types of viññāṇa.
Vipāka Viññāṇa

2. When we see something, a cakkhu viññāṇa arises. A split second later, we may hear something, and sōta viññāṇa arises. When we watch a movie, it seems like we are seeing and listening simultaneously, but it only appears that way because our mind is so fast. See “Vision Is a Series of “Snapshots” – Movie Analogy”   and “The Amazing Mind – Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories).”

  • Six types of viññāṇa can arise via our six senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind, called cakkhu, sōta, ghāna,jivhā, kāya, and manō viññāṇa. They are all vipāka viññāṇa.
  • Therefore, vipāka viññāṇa can be six types, and they will bring vipāka even for an Arahant until the death of the physical body.
  • We don’t have control over them once they arise. But we can, of course, avoid some. For example, if we don’t want to watch a movie, we can decide not to view it.
Kamma Viññāṇa

3. Then, based on that vipāka viññāṇa, kamma viññāṇa CAN arise IF we get attached to that vipāka viññāṇa via greed, hate, or ignorance.

  • For example, person X may see a person Y that X dislikes. That seeing event is a vipāka, and thus the viññāṇa generated is a vipāka viññāṇa.
  • But as soon as X sees Y, hateful thoughts may come to X’s mind, with which X can generate NEW KAMMA. Those thoughts have kamma viññāṇa.
  • Kamma viññāṇa ALWAYS arise in the MIND door (not at the other five doors) i.e., kamma viññāṇa are ALWAYS manō viññāṇa. That is in contrast to vipāka viññāṇa which can arise at any of the six sense doors.


Six Types of Vipāka Viññāṇa

4. So, a vipāka viññāṇa can arise due to any of the six senses. Seeing a rūpa with eyes (“cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ“), hearing a sound with ears (“sōtañca paṭicca saddē ca uppajjāti sōtaviññāṇaṃ“),…dhamma with mana indriya (“manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ“).

  • Note that vipāka viññāṇa DO NOT arise via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.” They ALWAYS appear via eyes seeing a rūpa, ears hearing a sound, etc.
  • We are all familiar with how “visual awareness” or cakkhu viññāṇa arises due to seeing a rūpa. Similarly, auditory awareness arises due to hearing a sound, etc. But most of our vipāka viññāṇa occur due to “mental awareness” or manō viññāṇa resulting via dhamma impinging on the mana indriya; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhamma are rūpa too!“.
  • Note that rūpa that we see with our eyes are rūpa rūpa (or varna rūpa); they usually are just called rūpa, but this can lead to confusion if someone is not aware of this detail.

5. In general, all we experience in this world are rūpa: rūpa rūpa, sadda rūpa, gandha rūpa, rasa rūpa, phoṭṭhabba rūpa, and ALSO dhamma.

Based on Vipāka Viññāṇa We Initiate Kamma Viññāṇa

6. To summarize: vipāka viññāṇa can arise at any of the six senses, and thus can be cakkhu, sōta, jivhā, ghāna, kāya, or manō viññāṇa.

  • If the vipāka viññāṇa is strong (i.e., if the experience is liked or disliked), then because of avijjā, we start generating saṅkhāra about it, which lead to a viññāṇa that we create on our own, a kamma viññāṇa.
  • Therefore, in contrast to vipāka viññāṇa, kamma viññāṇa arise via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa“.
  • They start automatically as manō viññāṇa, via manō saṅkhāra. But then we consciously start generating more via vaci and kāya saṅkhāra, and that will strengthen kamma viññāṇa.
  • We have discussed how manō saṅkhāra arise automatically due to our gati, and then we consciously generate vaci and kāya saṅkhāra: “How Are Gati and Kilesa Incorporated into Thoughts?“.
Examples of Vipāka Viññāṇa

7. Let us first consider a couple of examples of vipāka viññāṇa.

  • We may get to eat a tasty food item. The experience of that food on the tongue generates taste (jivhā viññāṇa), which is a vipāka viññāṇa. We got to taste that as a result of a previous good kamma vipāka. That experience includes identifying what food it is (sañña), and the taste it gives (védanā).
  • If we get a headache, that is bad kāya viññāṇa that arose due to a past bad kamma, i.e., a kamma vipāka. We know it is a headache (sañña), and we feel the pain (védanā).
  • When the sense input first comes, we just become aware of it. There are no kamma done with vipāka viññāṇa.
Examples of Kamma Viññāṇa

8. Based on those six types of vipāka viññāṇa that arise, we generate new mental states on our own. These are called kamma viññāṇa.

  • In the above first example, if we like the taste, we immediately start getting attached to it and begin generating saṅkhāra about that food. We begin to create vaci saṅkhāra (talking to ourselves) about how good the food is. That is a different mental state that we make on our own. Of course, we are likely to generate kāya saṅkhāra also when eating that food again. We have discussed the three types of saṅkhāra in “Mental Aggregates.”
  • A kamma viññāṇa arises within a fraction of a second after the vipāka viññāṇa, so that we usually cannot differentiate between the two mental states. (For those who are familiar with Abhidhamma, this is discussed at the end of this post).
  • Of course, vipāka viññāṇa lasts while we eat the food. A large number of jivhādvara citta vīthi run while we eat. Kamma viññāṇa also arise later in the same citta vīthi, but they also occur well after the meal. We can recall eating that food later at night (with a manō viññāṇa) and generate more kamma viññāṇa (mainly via vaci saṅkhāra) by consciously thinking how good it was.
  • In the second example above, a split second after we start experiencing the headache (vipāka viññāṇa and the associated feeling of pain), we start getting depressed and generating vaci saṅkhāra about how this is going to ruin the day and mess up all our plans.
Kamma Viññāṇa Create Kamma Bija

9. In both those examples, our first mental state (vipāka viññāṇa) was so strong that we — on our own — generated a kamma viññāṇa which also gives rise to a kamma bīja.

  • That kamma bīja can come back to our mind later as a vipāka viññāṇa (this is a manō viññāṇa). That is how we recalled our experience with tasty food later at night.
  • If that headache was terrible, we might be able to recall it days or weeks later.

10. Thus the important point is that a kamma bīja is the same as a “dhammā” that makes contact with the mind to give rise to a “mind sense event”; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhamma are rūpa too!“.

  • Just as a seeing event arises when the cakkhu indriya makes contact with a rūpa (“cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ“), a “mind event” occurs when a dhammā makes contact with the mana indriya (“manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ“).
  • One may attach to the taste of that delicious food. While thinking about how to taste it again in the future, many strong javana citta can lead to a kamma bīja.
  • Don’t be put off by those Pāli words. Once you get to know the meanings behind these words, it will become easy to see what happens.
More Kamma Viññān  Lead to Strengthening of Kamma Bija

11. The strength of a given kamma bīja determines how likely would it to come back and make contact with the mind later on. For example, if it were a regular sandwich, one would not make craving for that and thus would not create strong kamma bīja or a “dhammā.” Then it is likely that one would have forgotten that meal in a few hours.

  • However, if the meal were delicious, one would be thinking about it many days after leaving the restaurant, and each time one generates javana citta, one will be making that kamma bīja stronger. The more one thinks about it (i.e., generates vaci saṅkhāra) about it, the more robust it gets.
  • See, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Saṅkhāra” to see how thinking itself can lead to kamma generation.
Three Types of Saṅkhāra

12. This is how one becomes an alcoholic gradually. One starts remembering past “drinking events” and generate a lot of manō and vaci saṅkhāra even when not drinking.

  • By the way, drinking is a kāya saṅkhāra, since it involves moving body parts.
  • manō saṅkhāra arise automatically when one first thinks about a past drinking event (due to “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ.” Then when one starts consciously thinking about that past event, one starts generating vaci saṅkhāra; see, “How Are Gati and Kilesa Incorporated into Thoughts?” and “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • All three types of saṅkhāra contribute to “feed the viññāṇa for alcohol” via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇaPaṭicca Samuppāda step. While we do not have control over manō saṅkhāra that arise AUTOMATICALLY, we do have control over vaci and kāya saṅkhāra that one generates CONSCIOUSLY, as discussed in the above post. That is the key to Ānapāna and Satipattāna bhāvanā.
Transition from Vipāka Viññāṇa to Kamma Viññāṇa

13. Let us look at the timeline of how these two types of viññāṇa arise. Viññāṇa is not an “entity” that is always there. As with sañña, védanā, and saṅkhāra, a given viññāṇa arises with a thought.

  • When thoughts are not there, the mind is in the bhavānga state. Sometimes we see people — usually when they are not alert — staring out into space. Unless they are in deep thought (which is also possible), their minds are likely to be in the inactive bhavānga state.
  • Our minds are moved away from the dormant bhāvanāga state to conscious thoughts first via a vipāka viññāṇa. Then if we get attached (taṇhā) to that, we start generating kamma viññāṇa, which will bring future kamma vipāka.
  • It is essential to recognize this timeline. We start with a vipāka viññāṇa and then begin generating kamma viññāṇa. Of course, kamma leads to more vipāka later, and the whole process repeats without end. That is how we go through the rebirth process.
  • To stop this, we need to be mindful and stop generating kamma viññāṇa, especially those leading to bad kamma vipāka. That is the key to Ānapāna and Satipattāna bhāvanā.
  • That is a lot of information to grasp. One may need to re-read and also read relevant posts to understand fully.
The transition from Vipāka Viññāṇa to Kamma Viññāṇa is Fast

14. Finally, the time delay between vipāka viññāṇa and kamma viññāṇa is unimaginably small.

  • In pancadvāra citta vīthi with 17 thought moments, the vipāka viññāṇa arise at the beginning of the citta vīthi with the pancadvaravajjana citta. Kamma viññāṇa generate in javana citta that occur towards the end of the citta vīthi. Of course, many more pancadvāra and manōdvara citta vīthi run if one gets attached to that object (ārammana).
  • When dhamma impinges on the mana indriya to start a manōdvara vipāka event, a manōdvara citta vīthi with around ten citta runs, with the initial vipāka viññāṇa arising at the mind-door adverting thought-moment. Again, kamma viññāṇa generate at javana citta at the end of the citta vīthi.
  • Those who are into Abhidhamma can consult “Citta vīthi – Processing of Sense Inputs” for details.
Viññāṇa is the Link Between Mind and Matter

15. Viññāṇa is the link between mind and matter, even though it is in the “nāma or mind category” sometimes.

  • In the Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga, nāma is defined as only the first three khandha: “Tattha katamaṃ nāmaṃ? Vedanākkhandho, saññākkhandho, saṅkhārakhandho—idaṃ vuccati “nāmaṃ.” That is a clear indication that viññāṇa khandha does not belong in the “nāma or mind category.”
  • Information in these posts on viññāṇa could be new to many readers but are critically important. If one can grasp them, one will have the “nāmarūpa pariccheda ñāṇa.” See, “Kamma Viññāṇa and Nāmarūpa Pariccheda Ñāṇa.”
  • One must read a couple of more posts before making that critical connection. See “Viññāṇa Aggregate.”

Next, “Kamma Viññāṇa – Link Between Mind and Matter“, …

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