Complexity of the Mind – Viññāna and Sankhāra

April 28, 2019; revised November 8, 2019

Vipāka Viññāna and Kamma Viññāna

1. Even though science has made significant progress in the understanding of the material world, science has advanced very little on the subject of mental phenomena.

  • The words viññāna and saṅkhāra have no corresponding words in English. It is absurd to translate viññāna as just “consciousness.” There are two types of viññāna. Vipaka viññāna are only consciousness. However, kamma viññāna that arise via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” are much more than just consciousness.
  • I looked up the definition of consciousness. It usually is defined as “the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings” or “the awareness or perception of something by a person.” That is not what is meant by viññāna.

2. Kamma viññāna arises when one acts with avijjā: “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna.” Thus, kamma viññāna can occur only if one acts with avijjā or ignorance.

  • The Buddha did not act with viññāna (i.e., did not generate kamma viññāna) after attaining the Buddhahood. But he had perfectly good consciousness.
  • Viññāna is a very complicated word. Even though I have simplified viññāna as “defiled consciousness,” that is also not adequate; see, “Viññāna – Consciousness Together With Future Expectations.”
Different Categorizations of Saṅkhāra

3. In Paṭic­ca­samup­pāda ­Vibhaṅga, the term “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā” in akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda (that leads to suffering) is explained as follows: “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittāaṅkhāro”.

Translated: “What is avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, kāyasaṅkhāra, vacīsaṅkhāra, cittāaṅkhāra“. (here, cittāaṅkhāra is the same as manōsaṅkhāra).

  • They are all abhisaṅkhāra, even though the verse his simplified as “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārāey“.
  • There are two types of abhisaṅkhāra mentioned there: one kind refers to types of kamma accrued. The second categorization says whether it involves the body, speech, or just mind.
  • Therefore, saṅkhāra has a much deeper meaning than just “mental formations,” even though that is better than the translation for viññāna as consciousness.
  • Let us discuss those two types next.
Manō, vaci, and kāya Sankhāra

3. First, let us consider manō saṅkhāra, vaci saṅkhāra, and kāya saṅkhāra.

  • They all arise in mind, but have differences:  thoughts that appear automatically in mind are manō saṅkhāra.
  • When we consciously think about something, those are vaci saṅkhāra (speaking out is also included).
  • When we move the body with our thoughts, those thoughts are kāya saṅkhāra.
  • Of course, those saṅkhāra become abhisaṅkhāra when immoral or moral intentions play a role. Such abhisaṅkhāra lead to rebirth and future suffering (see #5 below).

4. In other words, saṅkhāra in “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” in akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda are abhisaṅkhāra that can lead to rebirth.  

  • Even an Arahant will generate saṅkhāra (all three types of manō saṅkhāra, vaci saṅkhāra, and kāya saṅkhāra) to live in this world until the physical body dies.
  • However, an Arahant will NOT generate any abhisaṅkhāra.
Apuñña, Punna, and Ānenja abhisaṅkhāra

5. Abhisaṅkhāra falls into three categories of apuñña abhisaṅkhāra, puñña abhisaṅkhāra, and ānenja abhisaṅkhāra.

  • Apuñña abhisaṅkhāra are immoral actions leading to births in the apāyās.
  • Punna abhisaṅkhāra are moral actions leading births in the “good” realms of human, deva, and rupāvacara brahma realms (via cultivation of rupāvacara jhāna).
  • Ānenja abhisaṅkhāra are involved in the cultivation of arupāvacara jhāna leading to rebirth in arupāvacara brahma realms.
  • Therefore, just translating saṅkhāra as “mental formations” is not very useful in describing what they are; see, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means.”
Current Scientific Knowledge of Consciousness

6. Modern science is far behind the Buddha in the understanding of mental phenomena. To understand the severity of this problem, let us examine a presentation by the philosopher John Searle, “Our Shared Condition – Consciousness.”

7. In my opinion, John Searle is one of few philosophers who come even close to understanding mind phenomena. Some philosophers/scientists do not even believe that consciousness is real. They say: “..Science is objective, consciousness is subjective. Therefore there cannot be a science of consciousness”. Whether there can be a “science of consciousness” or not, consciousness is real, as Searle points out.

  • Some others object, “.Maybe consciousness exists, but it can’t make any difference to the world. How could spirituality move anything?”. In response, Searle points out: “..I decide consciously to raise my arm, and the damn thing goes up”.
Consciousness Is Real

8. John Searle is also quite correct that consciousness is not an illusion. As he points out, only a conscious living being can decide to move a body part, say raise a hand.

  • But to be entirely correct, consciousness is not what moves an arm. One needs to make a “conscious effort” to move the arm, i.e., one must decide to raise the hand. Those thoughts are kāya saṅkhāra: conscious thoughts that lead to moving body parts.
  • However, it is essential to realize that the energy to raise the hand does not come from the mind. The mind initiates the process, and the brain sends the necessary commands to the muscles to raise the hand; energy for such muscle movements comes from the food we eat.
  • Just like an on-board computer carries out the commands of the pilot flying a plane, the brain acts like a computer and carries out the commands given by the mind.
Breathing Involves Basic Kāya saṅkhāra

9. The definition of kāya saṅkhāra is “assāsa passāsā kāya saṅkhāra” or “breathing in and out is kāya saṅkhāra.” We all do such kāya saṅkhāra through our lives, and that is the most basic kāya saṅkhāra.

  • Even though we do not realize it, breathing in and out involves “thinking at the lowest level” or with “atiparittārammana citta vithi.” Those citta vithi do not have javana citta, and thus, we do not “feel them.”
  • In the fourth jhāna samāpatti, kāya saṅkhāra involved in breathing stop, i.e., breathing stops.
  • Kāya saṅkhāra lead to any bodily movement. Unless those bodily movements lead to kammic effects (good or bad), they do not become abhisaṅkhāra, which could lead to rebirth.
Vaci Abhisaṅkhāra and Kāya Abhisaṅkhāra Can Lead to Rebirth

10. Vaci saṅkhāra also can be just saṅkhāra (thinking to oneself/speaking about normal activities) or abhisaṅkhāra with kammic consequences. See, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”

  • Both vaci and kāya abhisaṅkhāra can lead to rebirth.
  • Manō saṅkhāra — which arise automatically — do not lead to rebirths.
Some Pāli Words Should Not be Translated

11. Modern science cannot explain saṅkhāra (more correctly how a person moves body parts or speaks on his/her volition). The English language does not have an equivalent word for “saṅkhāra.” Furthermore, as explained above, “consciousness” should not be used as the English translation for “viññāna.”

  • We need to learn the Pāli words (saṅkhāra and viññāna) and then just use those words.
  • That is what has been the practice in the Sinhala language. The same words viññāna and saṅkhāra appear in the Sinhala translation of the Tipiṭaka. Just like in English, there are no Sinhala words assigned for viññāna and saṅkhāra.
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