Complexity of the Mind – Viññāna and Sankhāra

April 28, 2019

1. Even though science has made great progress in the understanding of the material world, science has achieved very little progress regarding mind phenomena.

  • In fact, the words viññāna and sankhāra have no corresponding words in English. It is absurd to translate viññāna as “consciousness”.
  • I looked up the definition of consciousness. Normally it 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 definitely not what is meant by viññāna.

2. Viññāna arises only when one acts with avijjā: “avijjā paccayā sankhāra” and “sankhāra paccayā viññāna“. Thus, viññāna can arise 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 complex word. Even though I have simplified viññāna as “defiled consciousness”, that is also not adequate; see, “Viññāna – Consciousness Together With Future Expectations“.

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).

  • It needs to be noted that these are all abhisaṅkhāra, even though the verse is simplified as “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā“.
  • There are two types of abhisaṅkhāra mentioned there: one kind refers to types of kamma accrued. The other refers to whether they are done by the body, speech, or the 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.

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

  • They all arise in the mind, but have differences: thoughts that arise automatically in the mind are called 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 they are done with immoral or moral intentions and thus lead to rebirth and future suffering (see #5 below).

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

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

5. Abhisankhara are again divided 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 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 really are; see, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means“.

6. In order 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 comes 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”.

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 perfectly correct, consciousness is not what moves an arm. One needs to make a “conscious effort” to move the arm, i.e., one makes a determination to raise the hand. That is what is called kāya sankhāra: conscious thoughts that lead to moving body parts.
  • However, it is important to realize that the energy to raise the hand does not come from the mind. Mind just 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.

9. Kāya sankhāra are defined as “assāsa passāsā kāya sankhāra” or “breathing in and out is done with kāya sankhāra“. Such kāya sankhāra are done by us all 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”.
  • Those kāya sankhāra involved in breathing stop when one gets into fourth jhāna samāpatti. Then one is relieved of even the tiniest effort involved in breathing.
  • Kāya sankhāra are involved in any bodily movement. Unless those bodily movements lead to kammic effects (good or bad), they do not become abhisankhāra leading to rebirth.

10. Vaci sankhāra also can be just sankhāra (thinking/speaking about normal activities) or abhisankhāra with kammic consequences.

  • Both vaci and kāya abhisankhāra can lead to rebirth.
  • Manō sankhāra — which arise automatically — do not lead to rebirths.

11. Modern science cannot explain sankhāra (more correctly how a person moves body parts or speaks on his/her volition). 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“.

  • It is better to use those Pāli words (sankhāra and viññāna) and to learn what is meant by them.
  • That is what has been the practice in Sinhala language. If you look at the Sinhala translation of the Tipitaka, the words viññāna and sankhāra are used without providing Sinhala translations for those two words. In fact, just like in English, there are no Sinhala words assigned for viññāna and sankhāra.
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