January 1, 2019; revised May 11, 2019
1. Viññāna means “without ñāna” or without wisdom, i.e., with ignorance. Viññāna could also mean “defiled viññāna”, i.e., not knowing the consequences of doing dasa akusala.
- When one attains the Arahanthood, when one’s paññā (wisdom) will be optimized and one will have “undefiled or clear viññāna”.
- There are many suttās that clearly state “viññāna nirōdha“, or stopping the arising of viññāna (defiled viññāna) leads to Nibbāna.
A succinct statement can be found in the “Dvayatānupassanāsutta (Sutta Nipata 3.12)“:
“Yaṃ kiñci dukkhaṃ sambhoti,
Natthi dukkhassa sambhavo“.
- Translated: “Whatever suffering that arises, all that arises due to viññāṇa; With not arising of viññāṇa, there is no existence with suffering“.
- A detailed explanation is at, “Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means“.
- I will introduce the concept of viññāṇa in a simple way. In the simplest form, viññāṇa is any type of expectation even without moral/immoral implications.
2. Viññāna includes or encompasses the following: our feelings (vēdanā), perceptions (saññā), and a set individual mental factors (cētasika). They all arise together, and the set of cētasika that arise is dependent on each person’s gati (habits/character). If you are not familiar with Abhidhamma, don’t worry about it. I will take a simple example to illustrate viññāna below.
- Five of the six types of viññāna are strictly vipāka viññāna. These are the five types of viññāna associated with the five physical senses.
- We become aware of something in our physical world via cakkhu viññāna (seeing), sōta viññāna (hearing), ghāna viññāna(smelling), jivhā viññāna (tasting), and kāya viññāna (touching); these are due to past kamma vipāka.
- When one of our five physical senses detects something in our physical world, one of those five types of viññāna arise. If we get interested in them, we start generating manō viññāna and doing kamma.
- Let us take a simple example to clarify those basic ideas.
3. When a man X sees a young woman (Y), that is called a “seeing event” or cakkhu viññāna. Suppose the woman has just come to X’s workplace as a new employee.
- With that cakkhu viññāna, X recognizes Y as an attractive female and that is called saññā; X may generate “happy feelings” when seeing Y and that is vēdanā; X may also generate lust in his mind and that is a mental factor (cētasika).
- If X gets interested in Y, then X may also generate lust in his mind with subsequent manō viññāna, and start generating manō, vaci, and kāya sankhāra; see the previous post.
4. With the establishment of this new viññāna, there is now an expectation in X’s mind of getting a date to go out with Y, and may be getting to marry Y someday.
- That is a manō viññāna that stays hidden in X’s mind. It has the expectation of getting an opportunity to have a close relationship with Y.
- That idea will remain hidden in X’s mind and can re-surface at appropriate times, especially when seeing Y again, or when someone mentions Y’s name for example. This is “viññāna paccayā sankhāra” in Paticca Samuppāda.
- The more X will engaging in generating such sankhāra, that viññāna will also strengthen; that is the “sankhāra paccayā viññāna” in Paticca Samuppāda.
5. Thus both “sankhāra paccayā viññāna” and “viññāna paccayā sankhāra” will be operating back and forth, and will keep strengthening that viññāna.
This is what is meant in many suttas by saying that “viññāna will grow” as one keeps doing sankhāra.
For example, in the “Cetanā Sutta (SN 12.38)“: ” Yañca, bhikkhave, ceteti yañca pakappeti yañca anuseti, ārammaṇametaṃ hoti viññāṇassa ṭhitiyā. Ārammaṇe sati patiṭṭhā viññāṇassa hoti. Tasmiṃ patiṭṭhite viññāṇe virūḷhe āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbatti hoti.Āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbattiyā sati āyatiṃ jāti jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti“.
Translated: ““Bhikkhus, what one intends, and what one plans, and whatever one has a tendency towards: this focus (ārammaṇa) a basis for the maintenance of viññāna. When there is an ārammaṇa there is a support for the establishing of viññāna. When viññāna is established and has come to growth, there is the arising of future renewed existence (punabbhavā). When there is the future renewed existence, future birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering“.
6. So, let us assume that X has been seeing Y for a few days and may be even got to talk to her a few times (vaci and kāya sankhāra are associated those activities). Each time X interacts with Y, that “viññāna for having a close relationship with Y” will grow in X’s mind.
- Furthermore, X will be thinking about Y often (which is generating vaci sankhāra), that will also help make that “viññāna for having a close relationship with Y” to grow.
- That happens via “sankhāra paccayā viññāna” step in Paticca Samuppāda.
7. Several days later, X finds out that Y is married, when her husband comes to meet her at work.
- He could clearly see that she is happily married and there is no point in even thinking about having a relationship with her.
- In an instant, X’s “viññāna for having a close relationship with Y” will be eliminated (for most people).
- When the reality of the situation is comprehended by the mind, corresponding viññāna will be stopped. This is what is meant by “viññāna nirōdha“.
8. Therefore, it is important to see that a viññāna (or an expectation) will be eliminated as soon as one realizes the futility (or the dangers) of that expectation.
- At a deeper level, all of one’s highly immoral types of viññāna will be permanently removed when one will be able to see the futility/dangers in engaging in immoral deeds. That is when one attains the Sōtapanna stage via comprehending Tilakkhana.
- Next, one’s expectation for seeking pleasures in this world will be totally removed when one realizes the futility — and dangers — in seeking such sense pleasures. That is when one attains the Anāgāmi stage of Nibbāna.
- Once one becomes an Anāgāmi, one is at a stage where one can start seeing the futility of jhānic pleasures and start getting rid of rupa rāga and arupa rāga (or the futility of born in the rupāvacara and arupāvacara realms. That is when one becomes an Arahant.
- Therefore, the way to Nibbāna is a step-by-step process; see, “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?“.
9. There are many types of viññāna that we can have. The minor ones are just expectations of getting something done or buying something or getting new job, etc.
- Sankhāra or “thinking of that expectation and making plans to get it done also by speaking and doing things (that includes vaci sankhāra and kāya sankhāra)” will make that viññāna to grow. This comes via the “sankhāra paccayā viññāna” step.
- In another example, suppose X is thinking about buying a certain type of car. That idea or expectation will be “at the back of his mind” all the time. If he sees a car like that on the road, then that viññāna will be awakened, and he will start thinking about it again. Now, one day X buys that car. Then that viññāna will also disappear since he will no longer interested in buying a car. That expectation has been fulfilled.
- Therefore, a viññāna will “take hold in the and grow” only as long as one has a desire AND one believes that it can be fulfilled.
10. I gave those two examples to illustrate the basic concept. But more complex types of viññāna can grow based on certain types of activities that X engages in, and those can become patisandhi viññāna that can lead to rebirths.
- For example, if X constantly engages in helping others, donating time and money to charities, etc, he would be cultivating the mindset of a dēva (even without knowing). Then that “moral viññāna” would grow with time and may lead to a rebirth in a dēva realm.
- If one is constantly thinking and planning to make money by exploiting/deceiving others, he/she is doing vaci/kāya sankhārathat will be feeding a “bad viññāna” that can lead to a birth in the apāyās.
- Therefore, viññāna can be various types.
- However, there are six basic types of viññāna. The above examples all belong to “manō viññāna“, except the cakkhu viññāna that was involved when X saw Y.
11. As we discussed in #2, there are five basic types of viññāna just bring external sense objects (pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches) to our mind.
- Then manō viññāna takes over, and will decide to act on it — and if needed — makes “future expectations” or “future plans”. Therefore, it is the manō viññāna that has expectations for the future.
- We ignore most of the things we see, hear, etc. But if we get attracted to something, then we will be going back to see, hear, etc and may be making other related plans too. That is all done with manō viññāna.
12. Obviously, patisandhi viññāna is a very important manō viññāna. It can determine future births.
- This is a complex subject, but when one engages in highly immoral deeds, the patisandhi viññāna that grows may not be what one desires.
- For example, suppose X is a serial rapist. He gets a temporary sense satisfaction by raping women. What he does not know is that he is cultivating a viññāna that is appropriate for an animal. So, he could get an animal birth because of that immoral viññāna he is cultivating.
- So, hopefully you can see the connection between viññāna and gati (pronounced “gathi”) too. Gati (character qualities/habits) is an important concept that has been hidden in recent years.
13. When one attains the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna, one would see the futility of such immoral and briefly-lived sense pleasures. Then such types of “immoral viññāna” would not be cultivated in his mind.
- In other words, one’s “hidden immoral gati” will be permanently removed at the Sōtapanna stage.
- That is comparable to X losing the “viññāna for having a close relationship with Y” in #3 to #7 above. In that case, X clearly saw the uselessness of having that viññāna, and it died.
- It would be a good idea to read and understand posts on gati: “How Habits are Formed and Broken – A Scientific View“; “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“; “Gati to Bhava to Jāti – Ours to Control“.
14. I made this discussion simple in order to get two main ideas across, which are:
- Viññāna is a complex concept. This is why it not appropriate to translate viññāna as just “consciousness”.
- Manō viññāna arise due to sankhāra (“san” + “khāra“). We cultivate those via “sankhāra paccayā viññāna” in the Paticca Samuppāda cycles.
- This is why “san” is a key root word in Pāli; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Samsāra)“.
15. I hope that those who translate deep suttas word-by-word will at least read these series of posts and make amendments to their ways of translating key suttas that discuss deep meanings. They are no different from the Sati bhikkhu who could not understand what is meant by viññāna in the Maha Tanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38).
- One should not be translating such deep suttas (also there is no point in reading them either) until one understands what is meant by viññāna.
16. The Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11) is another such a sutta (among many others).
- The key verse there is at the end of the sutta: “Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ, anantaṃ sabbatopabhaṃ Ettha āpo ca pathavī, tejo vāyo na gādhati. Ettha dīghañca rassañca, aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ; Ettha nāmañca rūpañca, asesaṃ uparujjhati; Viññāṇassa nirodhena, etthetaṃ uparujjhatī’”ti.
- This is explained in detail at, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavanga“.
17. As I have said many times, Buddha Dhamma is deep. It takes an effort to learn. Just translating deep suttas word-by-word or just reading those translations will not be of much benefit in the long run.
- Of course some suttas can be translated word-by-word, like the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65). Those are basic suttas that provide guidelines to live a moral life. But deep suttas that discuss anicca, anatta, or Nibbāna require a more deeper knowledge of the basics like what is meant by saññā, viññāna, sankhāra, etc.
- It is best to learn the meanings of these key words and just use them, instead of translating them as a single English word. I hope you can see why, with the above discussion on viññāna.
Also see, “Connection Between Sankhāra and Viññāna” and “Viññāna and Sankhāra – Connection to Paticca Samuppāda“. These three posts are essential to be understood if one really wants to understand Buddha Dhamma.