Viññāna (Consciousness)

A. Base-Level of Viññāna

1. Viññāna 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.

  • Viññāna is “colored” by the mental factors, such as vēdanā, saññā, cētanā (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 (sankhāra). We will discuss the major mental factors in this section.
  • Like everything else, viññāna can change from moment to moment.

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

  • Among humans, there are sub-levels too: Viññāna 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 Viññāna according to the magga phala: Viññāna begins to ascend to higher levels starting at the Sōtapanna stage, followed by the Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi levels, and culminating at the Arahant level.
  • At the Arahant level one has totally purified viññāna (pabhassara citta); see, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavanga“.
  • Thus, as one comprehends the true nature of this world (anicca, dukkha, anatta), one’s viññāna 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 viññāna” does not transfer from life-to-life. If a human dies and is reborn as a deer, that human level of viññāna (which was a result of the kammic potential of the kamma seed that led to that birth; see, “Sankhāra, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, and Kamma Vipāka“) dies and a lower level viññāna associated with a deer becomes effective.

4. As long as one has not attained at least the Sōtapanna stage, the “base level” of viññāna 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 or bhava grasped at the moment of death.

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

  • An Arahant is the highest since there are no defilements left. Anāgāmi, Sakadāgāmi, Sōtapanna levels are successively lower. Those four are the highest any being can have.
  • Beings in the four arūpa loka and the 16 rūpa loka have viññāna not contaminated by both greed and hate. Those are jhānic states.  However, other than those who have attained magga phala (one of the four stages of Nibbāna), beings in those realms have “viññāna levels” lower than that of even a Sōtapanna (living in any of the realms).
  • Viññāna of a deva in any of the six deva lokas do not have hate.
  • Viññāna 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 vipāka associated with the killing of a being will be different depending on the “level of viññāna” of the being. Thus killing of an Arahant is the worst, and then the severity of the kamma decreases through Anāgāmi, Sakadāgāmi, and Sōtapanna 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 (viññāna) 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 Nibbāna is attained, all beings just wander around all 31 realms.

B. Viññāna During a Lifetime

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

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

  • Viññāna that arise due to past kamma (and the accumulated avijjā) 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 vipāka. Even an Arahant will see that it is a eye-pleasing object.
  • This is also described under the sub-heading “Vēdanā Arising from Kamma Vipāka” in “Vēdanā (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 viññāna arises during a given lifetime when one is engaged in “making sankhāra” 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 viññāna via GENERATING sankhāra. While we may generate such new viññāna based on the “seeing event”, an Arahant will not.
  • This is described in, “Vēdanā (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways“, under the sub-heading, “Vēdanā Arising from sankhāra (“San phassa jā vēdanā”).

C. Many Varieties of Viññāna During a Lifetime

1. The above discussion points out major attributes of viññāna. But viññāna 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 viññāna (awareness) is according to which sense door was used: cakkhu viññāna (visual awareness) arises when one uses eyes to get information about an object. Similarly for sōta, jivhā, gandha, kāya, and manō viññāna.

  • 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 viññāna.
  • Then there are kusala, akusala, or neutral (upekkha) viññāna. For example, one gives a meal to a hungry person with kusala viññāna; one steals with an akusala viññāna. One takes a bath with a (kammically) neutral viññāna. And based on those there will be vipāka viññāna.

Next, “Rūpa (Material Form)“, …………

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