Viññāna – Consciousness Together With Future Expectations

January 1, 2019

1. Viññāna means “without ñāna” or without wisdom: in very simple terms, not knowing the consequences of doing dasa akusalaViññāna also means “defiled consciousness”; when one attains the Arahanthood, one will have “undefiled or pure consciousness”.

  • there are many suttās that clearly state “viññāna nirōdha“, or stopping the arising of viññāna (defiled consciousness) leads to Nibbāna.

A succinct statement can be found in the “Dvaya­tānu­passa­nā­sutta (Sutta Nipata 3.12)“:
Yaṃ kiñci dukkhaṃ sambhoti,
Sabbaṃ viññāṇapaccayā;
Viññāṇassa nirodhena,
Natthi dukkhassa sambhavo

  • Translated: “Whatever suffering that arises, all that arises due to viññāṇaWith not arising of viññāṇa, there is no existence with suffering“.
  • I will introduce the concept of viññāṇa in a simple way.

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).

  • I will take an example to illustrate viññāna. I will skip some details to make the picture simple.
  • A “seeing event” occurs with a series of citta, but when citta get contaminated in a 9-step fast process, they end up as “viññānakkhandha” (or viññāna aggregate). And that is basically what we call “viññāna” or a “defiled consciousness”. At this stage, just focus on viññāna.

3. As an example, when person X sees a lady (Y), that is called a “seeing event” or cakkhu viññāna.

  • 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).
  • All those arise SIMULTANEOUSLY and that cakkhu viññāna encompasses or includes all those (vēdanā, saññā, and other types of cētasika).

3. Now, suppose  Y has just come to X’s workplace as a new employee.

  • After seeing Y, there could arise  another subtle expectation in X’s mind of getting a date to go out with Y, and may be getting to marry Y someday.
  • 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.
  • 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.

4. 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. 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, that will also help make that “viññāna for having a close relationship with Y” to grow.
  • That happens via “sankhāra paccaya viññāna” step in Paticca Samuppāda.

5. Several days later, X finds out that Y is married, when her husband comes to meet her at work.

  • Now, in an instant, X’s “viññāna for having a close relationship with Y” will be eliminated.
  • He could clearly see that she is happily married and there is no point in even thinking about having a relationship with her.

6. 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 paccaya 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.

7. 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.
  • 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.

8. When one of our senses detects something in our physical world, one of five types of viññāna arise. 

  • 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).

9. As we can see, those five 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 builds 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.

10. 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 girls. 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 (or gathi) too.

11. 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.

12. I made this very 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 is closely related to sankhāra (“san” + “khāra“). We cultivate  those via “sankhāra paccaya 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)“.

13. As I have said many times, real 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 log 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 why, with the above discussion on viññāna.

14. Finally, I hope that those “scholar bhikkhus” 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).

  • The Kevaṭṭa Sutta (DN 11) is such a sutta (among many others) which explains why Nibbāna is “viññāna nirōdha”.
  • One should not be translating such deep suttas until one understands what is meant by viññāna. 
  • Their faithful followers are in the dark, because of them. This is really a sad case of “blind leading the blind”.