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 sankhāra 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 “sankhāra 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 sankhāra” and “sankhāra 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 Paticca Samuppāda (that leads to suffering) is explained as follows: “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro”.

Translated: “What is avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, kāyasaṅkhāra, vacīsaṅkhāra, cittasaṅkhāra“. (here, cittasaṅkhāra 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, sankhāra 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 sankhāra, vaci sankhāra, and kāya sankhāra.

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

4. In other words, sankhāra in “avijjā paccayā sankhāra” in akusala-mula Paticca Samuppada are abhisankhāra that can lead to rebirth.  

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

5. Abhisankhara falls into three categories of apunna abhisankhāra, punna abhisankhāra, and ānenja abhisankhāra.

  • Apunna abhisankhāra are immoral actions leading to births in the apāyās.
  • Punna abhisankhāra are moral actions leading births in the “good” realms of human, deva, and rupāvacara brahma realms (via cultivation of rupāvacara jhāna).
  • Ānenja abhisankhāra are involved in the cultivation of arupāvacara jhāna leading to rebirth in arupāvacara brahma realms.
  • Therefore, just translating sankhāra 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 sankhāra: 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 sankhāra

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

  • 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 sankhāra involved in breathing stop, i.e., breathing stops.
  • Kāya sankhāra lead to any bodily movement. Unless those bodily movements lead to kammic effects (good or bad), they do not become abhisankhāra, which could lead to rebirth.
Vaci Abhisankhāra and Kāya Abhisankhāra Can Lead to Rebirth

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

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

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

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